Coming soon: 21st century barnstorming

Electric aircraft pioneers draw on history to win converts to their novel designs

If you lived during the early days of commercial aviation, you may have been lucky enough to fly with a barnstormer in a small plane for $5 or $10 during national tours by pilots who also did stunts and showed off the capabilities of their aircraft.

Flash forward, and some of the companies developing small electric aircraft plan to warm up consumers to their strange looking designs in a similar fashion: through demonstrations and tourism flights.

That strategy makes good sense, says Dan Bubb, a former airline pilot and now an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Barnstorming “got people excited about the airplane — it captured their imagination,” he says.

By way of example, Lift Aircraft of Texas, which is developing a single-occupant “personal” rotorcraft named Hexa, plans to offer brief, low-altitude flights starting at a date to-be-decided. These flights are meant to motivate excitement for potential consumer sales. The largely automated craft will take off and land on its own, and for $250, the occupant will have the joy of steering it for up to 15 minutes at an altitude of no more than 10 meters in controlled directions. Such flights are permitted, Lift Aircraft believes, under ultralight classification without the requirement of a licensed pilot. So far, some 15,000 people have signed up to fly in a dozen planned locations.

The company is refining plans for such flights in 25 U.S. cities in “scenic locations with uncongested flyover areas,” founder and CEO Matt Chasen told me in an email. “We expect that many people will want to fly a lot and will offer lower per flight pricing for repeat customers.”

He explained: “We’re pursuing entertainment/recreational flights initially because we believe there is a huge market for people to experience the joy and thrill of vertical flight.”

Ultimately, he expects the company’s personal aircraft to open up general aviation to a whole new kind of customer. Traditionally, GA has only been open to “those with the considerable money, time and skill,” he said.

Meanwhile, in China, EHang in June announced a purchase order agreement with the city of Jishou in central southern China for five of its two-passenger EH216 electric rotorcraft for tours over the Dehang Canyon near the scenic Aizhai Suspension Bridge.

The company describes the EH216 as an “autonomous aerial vehicle,” but adds that each flight will be monitored by a ground control center.

“Our EH216 will have great market potential in aerial tourism” due to its autopilot functions, vertical takeoff and landing and all-electric propulsion, the company said by email.

“If a malfunction or abnormal condition occurs, multiple backups will seamlessly come online to take over, and the fail-safe system would take contingency plans to ensure the safety of passengers, such as a powered landing under emergency.”

Sightseeing flights also are possible in Thailand and Bali, Indonesia, EHang said. The company performed a demonstration flight in Bali in 2021, after which Indonesia’s Prestige Aviation pre-ordered 100 EH216s, according to EHang.

Are such services any way to start a transportation revolution? Bubb the historian thinks it could be: “There will be skeptics who will say this is too dangerous or will never work, but that has happened with every other mode of transportation, and the skeptics were proved wrong every single time.”

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EHang flew one of its EH216S autonomous aerial vehicles over China's Aizhai Suspension Bridge in May, a demonstration of how early tourist flights might go. Credit: EHang

Coming soon: 21st century barnstorming