Meet Midnight: Archer Aviation unveils the design of its production aircraft
By Ben Iannotta|November 17, 2022
Automobile world provided inspiration
PALO ALTO, Calif. — As the sun went down here, the lights went up inside a small hangar at Palo Alto Airport. Before us was a gleaming black and gray aircraft — a non-flying mockup, to be precise. This is how Archer Aviation gave supporters, friends, vendors and reporters their first look at the company’s planned production eVTOL, or electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.
Named Midnight, the aircraft would be propelled by 12 sets of rotors, the front six tilting downward after takeoff from their upright hover position to accelerate the aircraft into winged forward flight. The type’s critical design review is targeted for early 2023, with the first pre-production aircraft scheduled to start flying by mid-year.
What I and the other attendees saw in the hangar represents what the first Midnight aircraft will look like, said Dave Dennison, Archer’s vice president of engineering. The exterior shape is fixed, he said.
Two doors on each side will accommodate four passengers and a pilot, and large windows will provide a panoramic view for the occupants. The landing gear will keep the fuselage low to the ground, so that stepping aboard will be about like getting into a sport utility vehicle, said Julien Montousse, vice president of design and innovation and a former auto designer.
Archer is among a handful of companies competing vigorously in the urban air mobility segment of the advanced air mobility movement, the goal being to revolutionize local travel through clean, affordable, electric flight. Midnight is being designed to fly routes of 20 miles [32 kilometers] or less, although Archer says the design’s maximum range will be much farther.
“We want to be the first company to bring an eVTOL aircraft to market,” Adam Goldstein, the former software mogul who is now CEO of Archer, said before the unveiling.
At the unveiling, he made clear that the goal was not just to bring any eVTOL forward: “Since the advent of the airplane, aircraft have always been about utility, but we didn’t want to build an aircraft that’s just about utility. With Midnight, you want to explore it, touch it. You want to experience it,” he said. The design intent was “an emotional product, like you see in some of the best auto brands today.”
Archer touts Midnight as an alternative to fossil-fuel-powered tour helicopters and says it has received $10 million from United Airlines as a pre-delivery deposit on 100 aircraft. Earlier this month, Archer and United announced that the first route will be between Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and Downtown Manhattan Heliport in New York. Archer plans to begin low-rate initial production of Midnights at a facility near its San Jose headquarters. On Nov. 14, it announced it will scale up production starting in the first half of 2024 by building a manufacturing plant adjacent to Covington Municipal Airport in Georgia.
The unveiling was the culmination of an all-day “open house” that began with attendees witnessing a test flight of Midnight’s precursor, the Maker demonstrator, at Salinas Municipal Airport in the California farm country. The unoccupied aircraft made a soft, rhythmic whooshing sound as it flew by me and the other attendees on the tarmac and completed a pre-programmed route as a pilot-in-command and a handful of others monitored the test from inside a trailer. A conventional helicopter followed Maker during the test from a safe distance to beam real-time video for display on a large outdoor screen in front of us.
Plans call for testing the Midnight design in a similar manner. Each Midnight will be 20% larger than Maker, and twice the gross weight, Dennison said, adding that the company has not said what Maker weighs.
One of the messages during an afternoon of presentations was that flying in an eVTOL won’t be a risky affair, even if Archer has yet to put anyone aboard Maker, and Midnight will be tested unoccupied at first too. FAA and Archer Aviation are working collaboratively toward the type certificate and other certificates that Archer will need for its first operations.
“I firmly believe that these vehicles are going to markedly change the bar on safety,” said Michael Romanowski, Archer’s head of government relations who joined the company in August from FAA. “The levels of redundancy, the simplified operations built into these vehicles, lower maintenance is going to be game changer for the industry. History has shown that advanced technology insertion has resulted in tremendous safety improvements.”
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