Six minutes in an electric multicopter

Our reporter flew a Hexa personal aircraft as a customer. Here’s his account.

LAKELAND, Fla. — Strapped into my seat harness, grasping a joystick with my right hand, I could hear the 18 rotors above me spin up with an electronic whine that grew to a low hum.

“The motors are in idle speed. You are cleared for takeoff,” the pilot-flight instructor radioed to me through my helmet earphones. He directed me to press the takeoff button, marked with an up arrow, on the joystick, and I eased my thumb onto it.

“Pressing the button,” I said into the mouthpiece. The rotors spun faster and louder, and the aircraft gently rose above a grassy area on the grounds of the Lakeland Aero Club, a nonprofit that trains young pilots at the Lakeland Linder International Airport. The club is located on a distant corner of the airport grounds. I could hear planes taking off and landing but was far enough away that I couldn’t see them over the trees and buildings.

On this breezy Sunday (March 10), I was the first customer of the day to fly this Hexa multicopter made by LIFT Aircraft Inc. of Austin, Texas. I cover advanced air mobility, an emerging genre of electric aircraft ranging from single-person craft like this one to air taxis and regional planes. When I learned that LIFT was offering flights not far from my home in Orlando, I contacted the company, which agreed that I could purchase the service just like other customers and write about it. Aerospace America paid $249 for me to go through the usual orientation and about 10 minutes in a simulator, and then fly for 6 minutes, 30 seconds.

LIFT’s mission is to “democratize personal flight and redefine urban transportation.” The Lakeland Aero Club is the first stop on a planned tour that will take Hexas to dozens of U.S. cities. Nationwide, LIFT says it has 15,000 people signed up to fly in 25 cities, with about 5,000 of them prepaid.

Lakeland was chosen partly because the company also plans to show off Hexas during the Sun ’n Fun Aerospace Expo here from April 9-14. After Lakeland, LIFT plans to continue offering flights to customers in Austin starting in May, with further expansion into additional cities to be announced soon.

Eventually, the company may sell the aircraft, but selling flight experiences is its first business model.

I was nervous when I arrived at the Aero Club’s hangar, but training in the simulator gave me confidence, and the controls were simple and all on a single joystick to the right side of the seat.

In addition to the single takeoff button, there was one to command the aircraft to return to its “home” position above the takeoff zone and one to tell it to land. I would push the joystick forward to fly forward, pull it back to fly backward and move it left or right to move sideways. Altitude would be controlled by pushing up or down on a tab on the front of the joystick, while a similar tab on the back of the joystick would be pushed left or right to rotate the aircraft in the corresponding direction.

All the controls, except for the buttons, would return to the center position if I let go, halting whatever motion I’d been commanding and leaving the aircraft hovering in place. There was nothing for my left hand or my feet to do.

In the simulator, I and the other customers had practiced rising to the geofenced altitude of 30 feet and then executing a simple box pattern: forward, to the right, backward and then to the left to return to the original position. We’d also practiced a full rotation and flying forward while turning slightly to the right.

Now airborne, I repeated these steps to demonstrate to my instructor that I was in control. Then he told me I had 3 minutes of battery time left to “have fun” and fly however I wanted — sort of. The rectangular flight area was cordoned off by fluorescent green traffic cones. I took the aircraft forward to the geofence, which halted my forward motion while the Hexa kept hovering. I then flew a bit more, turning and rotating several times.

LIFT says the aircraft battery allows it to fly for 15 minutes, but that time is shortened by maneuvers that place more demand on the battery, such as climbing and rotating. The onboard software attempts to keep the Hexa in a level stationary position unless commanded otherwise. The rotors will work harder to maintain control if there’s a breeze, which can also shorten battery life.

My flight took place on a beautiful, sunny day with few clouds. I did feel some breeze tugging and pushing at the aircraft, especially when at the 30-foot height. So I brought the Hexa down to about 10 feet, where the breeze was less. The top winds that day were about 11 kph, which LIFT said was well within its limits. On the day before, gusts up to 48 kph had prompted LIFT to postpone flights, including mine.

The LIFT instructor told me my flight was over, and he said I could either fly back to the landing zone manually or by pushing the return button. I pushed the button, wanting to try out all the features of the Hexa, and it worked beautifully. So did the landing button, and I was back on the ground.

As all LIFT customers do, I had signed a waiver which stated that I, the pilot, was assuming all risks, even if caused by the “action, inaction, or negligence” of LIFT or the property owners.

Hexa is designated as an ultralight under FAA regulations, which state that “any individual who elects to fly an ultralight vehicle has assessed the dangers involved and assumes personal responsibility for his/her safety.” But I was obligated, under those regulations, to “maintain vigilance so as to see and avoid aircraft” and avoid creating a hazard, among other things, according to the waiver.

Soon after I exited the aircraft, technicians with LIFT wheeled out fully charged replacement batteries for the Hexa — all 18 of them, one for each motor and rotor. Minutes later, the next customer took off. After his flight, the LIFT crew swapped the Hexa we’d flown for a second aircraft by wheeling it to the takeoff zone on a handcart.

The second customer and I noted that the aircraft seemed slow to respond at times. In response to questions I emailed to the company about this, the company said, “it was a fairly windy day, which can exaggerate the feeling that the aircraft isn’t directly responding to your input at the stick because it’s compensating for the wind.”

The response went on to explain that the maneuverability was intentionally limited “to ensure a smooth flight” but that LIFT will offer more flight modes and capabilities as customer pilots gain more experience.

When I asked why the crew in Lakeland had swapped out the aircraft for a replacement, the company said it rotates the aircraft regularly, but “this particular swap was unscheduled – not due to any control issues, but because the team became aware of a wiring connection that required maintenance and chose to swap aircraft to avoid maintenance delays.”

My flight was a great experience, especially because I write so much about electrification of aviation and I can now share what it’s like to fly an electric multicopter. However, I was so preoccupied by learning the controls and documenting the experience that I’ve realized now I didn’t take so much as a moment to appreciate the fun of it all. I may have to go back.

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In each single-person Hexa, the passenger maneuvers aircraft via the joystick to the right of the seat. Credit: John Couwels

Six minutes in an electric multicopter