Site visit: Electra’s hybrid-electric aircraft flight test center

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Electra’s JP Stewart flew the Goldfinch aircraft the day before. The plane was flown then, but not by Stewart.

MANASSAS, Va. — In front of me, engineers and pilots are manually wheeling a bright yellow plane into a hangar.

I’m here at Manassas Regional Airport outside Washington, D.C., and this is the Goldfinch, a two-seat, hybrid-electric demonstrator built by Electra for flight testing.

Goldfinch is a short takeoff and landing aircraft and is a precursor to a nine-passenger prototype of the production version that Electra plans to sell for regional transportation.

Electra has prestigious neighbors at the airport, including the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the Department of Justice, Aurora Flight Sciences and Leidos Aviation, all of which occupy similar-sized white hangars with a strip of taxiway leading to the main runways.

Pilots have been flying the Goldfinch since November.

“What we’re doing now is demonstrating slow flight, down to around 65 kph currently, and we’re decreasing our takeoff distance each flight,” JP Stewart, Electra’s vice president and general manager tells me in the hangar. “The next thing is really to show the capability for extremely short takeoff and landing, with a goal to guarantee 300 feet [90 meters] eventually.”

Stewart adds that Electra’s plane should be capable of taking off and landing in much shorter distances, but the company wants to establish a realistic minimum.

“We’re flying regularly now,” Stewart says of Goldfinch, adding that it was flown yesterday.

Hybrid in Electra’s case means the Goldfinch’s eight rotors are capable of running only on lithium-ion batteries, but the plane also has a gas turbogenerator in the nose to charge the batteries in flight or provide electric current directly to the motors. This generator will be shifted to the back of the fuselage for the production model. Electra accomplishes the short takeoff and landing distances by having the rotors blow air directly at the wing, which provides additional lift.

As I’m shown around the hangar, machinery whines and workers move about various workstations. Two chase planes sit near the Goldfinch.

“We’re working on several fronts to develop quieter, more efficient flight,” Stewart says. “We’re trying to provide two and a half times the payload and 10 times the range of a battery-only electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.”

During my visit, I also shake hands with Cody Allee, the pilot who took the aircraft up in November on its first flight.

He tells me the plane actually responds better to pilot input when it is flying more slowly, which is the opposite of how most planes respond.

“When those eight engines are producing thrust and blowing over the wing, it becomes a unique machine,” Allee says. “With the blown lift, we were able to slow down to around 35 knots, or 40 miles an hour, [64 kph] and it handled just the same as it did when flying faster — no buffet or shaking that typically accompanies those speeds.”

Stewart and Allee won’t disclose everything they’ve learned about the Goldfinch, to avoid giving away their competitive edge.

“What we’ve learned is how the various components of the system work together, and we will release more details later,” Stewart says.

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Electra's Goldfinch demonstrator shown in the hangar at the company's facility at Manassas Regional Airport in Virginia on March 14. Credit: Paul Brinkmann

Site visit: Electra’s hybrid-electric aircraft flight test center