U.S. military begins testing of an electric air taxi at Edwards Air Force Base for the first time, a Joby S4 tiltrotor
By Paul Brinkmann|September 26, 2023
NASA and Joby also will be involved in the test program
This story has been updated to provide more details about Joby’s contract with AFWERX, the U.S. Air Force’s innovation arm.
EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — In a gleaming white hangar constructed of fabric and steel over the past few months, the U.S. Air Force held a ceremony Monday to formally introduce airmen and other personnel to the first electric air taxi to be stationed at an American military base: a Joby Aviation S4 tiltrotor.
Air Force personnel had previously traveled to Joby’s test site in Marina, California, about an eight-hour drive from here, to remotely pilot S4 demonstrators. This one will be operated at Edwards by the Air Force, Joby and NASA to test its utility for carrying personnel and supplies.
The futuristic white aircraft stood inside the hangar in front of a large America flag. Officials from the Air Force, NASA’s nearby Armstrong Flight Research Center and Joby described the moment as a historic one in aviation development at the Edwards testing grounds, where the first supersonic flight and other aviation breakthroughs were achieved.
“We’re literally standing on the threshold here of a new era in aviation,” said Col. Douglas Wickert, commander of the 412th Test Wing at Edwards. “There’s no doubt that the electrification of aviation is going to be a critical piece in the broader energy transition toward a sustainable future for humanity, and I’m proud that we get to the opportunity to contribute to that. There’s a transformative vertical lift industry that’s emerging, and we need to be partners in it.”
The S4 shown off today is the first one brought to Edwards under a $131 million contract with AFWERX, the Air Force Research Laboratory’s innovation arm. The contract permits the Air Force and its partners to fly the aircraft, although the Air Force won’t own it. The service will pay for use of the aircraft based partly on flight hours, while Joby provides flight and maintenance training, among other services, according to Joby.
The electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft has already performed several short, remotely piloted hover flights, Joby Executive Chairman Paul Sciarra said during the ceremony. A second S4, which Joby intends to deliver to Edwards in “early 2024,” will be flown by an onboard pilot, Air Force and Joby officials told me. Joby says the Air Force is not taking possession of the aircraft.
This first aircraft will be part of a test program run by the Air Force with help from Joby and NASA. The company has provided the Air Force with a charging station, while NASA pilots intend to test fly the aircraft and provide safety assessments.
Joby is seeking an FAA type certificate for the S4 design by 2025, after which it plans to operate a fleet commercially as air taxis. The S4 at Edwards was the first built in Joby’s pilot production plant in Marina.
Having the S4 in the hands of the Air Force and others provides “outside validation” that encourages investment in the publicly traded company, said Joby’s Sciarra during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. He said the milestone reflects continued interest and commitment from the military to investigate and support development of the S4, which began with initial interest in 2016.
Joby, in its press release, said the aircraft is the first eVTOL to be stationed at a U.S. military base and that it believes the aircraft is also the first electric air taxi to be delivered to a customer in the United States.
The aircraft can transport a pilot and four passengers “quickly and quietly with zero operating emissions” and a range of 160 kilometers, with a battery reserve, and a top speed of 200 kph, the company says.
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