Here’s what it’s like to fly a novel aircraft for the first time

Pilots from BETA Technologies, Electra and Samson Sky spoke to us

This story has been updated to correct the state that Samson Sky is based in.

As test pilot Robert Moehle prepared to fly a Switchblade “flying sports car” prototype for the first time on Nov. 8, one of the last things he did was to check that video cameras on board were recording.

“Then I knew the moment had arrived and, I’m not going to hide it, the first flight of any article gives a mix of excitement and a little nervousness because a lot of things can happen,” Moehle tells me.

The prototype — developed by Samson Sky, a small company in Redmond, Oregon — was propelled by a gas piston engine that turned a single ducted fan at the back of the vehicle. Samson’s plan for the production model is to have a gas piston engine power a generator, which would feed electricity to an electric motor.

For the November flight, Moehle accelerated Switchblade down a runway at Grant County International Airport in Central Washington and the vehicle bobbed up into the air, a slight wobble apparent in its first few moments aloft.

The three-wheeled aircraft, which will be sold as a kit for final assembly by customers, has a retractable tail and wings for driving mode. Moehle flew it for just under six minutes to an altitude of 500 feet.

“I felt really prepared for that first flight thanks to the Samson team’s proper buildup and risk-mitigation approach,” Moehle says. “We reviewed test data from high-speed taxiing and ground tests and compared that with projections and analysis,” adding that he spent many hours flying a simulator based on flight information from the aircraft’s 3D computer models.

Switchblade’s brief time airborne placed it among a spate of first flights of unusual designs. While the version that was flown in November was powered purely by gasoline, plans call for the production version to be a hybrid partly powered by electricity. Other designs in the genre of personal air vehicles and air taxis are purely electric, with multiple electric motors driving multiple rotors or propellers.

As for the brief wobble on takeoff, Moehle says there may have been a wind gust. But he suspects it was due to an “aerodynamic effect of the plane wanting to stick to the ground” until he brought the nose up, which then resulted in the plane bobbing upward momentarily. As a veteran test pilot, he says handling that aerodynamic effect was second nature, but that the test flight campaign will result in modifications to avoid or address such effects for the final production aircraft.

Moehle prepared with simulations on the X-Plane commercial desktop simulation software. But many electric aircraft developers approaching first flight in recent years have built their own simulators, in which pilots train for hours or years before boarding the aircraft itself.

One such developer is BETA Technologies. The Vermont company has built a simulator to train pilots to fly its ALIA all-electric aircraft. The ALIA is being developed in two configurations: vertical takeoff and landing, and conventional takeoff and landing.

BETA test pilot Chris Caputo flew on the first ALIA aircraft in March 2020, although that wasn’t its inaugural flight. That honor went to company founder and CEO Kyle Clark. Caputo tells me the simulator puts pilots through their exact flight profiles, and that it prepared him well for the experience.

“I felt very prepared and confident based on the training that went into it. Obviously, we don’t just throw somebody into the seat of the aircraft and say, ‘Good luck,’” Caputo says. “If it weren’t for people willing to jump into an aircraft for the first time, we wouldn’t be leaders in this industry in America, right?”

Test pilot Cody Allee flew Virginia company Electra’s Goldfinch demonstrator on its inaugural flight on Nov. 11.

“I had the normal trepidation associated with the first attempt at flying anything brand new,” Allee told me in an email. “This demonstrator aircraft has all manual, conventional flight controls — meaning I would have no fly-by-wire assistance if things didn’t go as expected, and the turbogenerator and the batteries were newly designed and had not flown before.”

But Allee said he had “complete faith” in the company’s engineering team and maintenance technicians. “We spent many hours in ground test and rehearsal, and gained confidence that the systems would function as they were designed. So when lifting off for the first time, I was able to focus on flying the plane, without worrying about an impending emergency.”

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Here’s what it’s like to fly a novel aircraft for the first time