Electra is betting that what it says will be leading-edge short takeoff and landing performance will prove to be more cost-effective than full VTOL capability as it steps up the development of its hybrid-electric STOL aircraft. The U.S. startup is seeking to begin flight testing a sub-scale, two-seat technology demonstrator during 2021 as it works towards anticipated type certification for a six-seat production aircraft in 2026.
The company was founded in early 2020 by unmanned aircraft pioneer John Langford, whose Aurora Flight Sciences company was acquired by Boeing in 2017. He says that funding from a small group of initial backers and seed-round support from an undisclosed investor have provided sufficient funds to complete the technology demonstrator stage of the program.
Early drawings of the unnamed aircraft show a high fixed wing with eight forward-facing propellers, each powered by an electric motor. The aircraft will also have a conventionally powered engine that Langford said is more like an auxiliary power unit.
The technology demonstrator flight trials will be used to evaluate the optimum short-field performance in a range of around 100 to 300 feet. The sub-scale model will be powered by eight 30 kW electric motors and a 100 kW engine, driving slow spinning, non-variable pitch propellers. The full-scale aircraft will require more power and variable pitch propellers.
Electra sees its aircraft supporting a variety of advanced air mobility missions, including air taxi operations, freight delivery, and logistics in urban, suburban, and rural environments. Its fixed landing gear is being designed for use on unprepared landing strips.
Part of the company’s business plan is to support aspects of existing and planned air transportation services. In October, it announced a partnership with supersonic aircraft developer Aerion through which the STOL aircraft would carry passengers to and from flights in the AS2 jet, which will have to operate from larger airports.
Eventually, as electric propulsion technology advances, there may be a case for developing a STOL aircraft that could carry up to around 40 passengers, Electra says. It has yet to issue range projections for the aircraft.
Langford said that Electra will look to work with partners when it’s ready to start building a production aircraft. In his view, it will take larger, more experienced aerospace companies for new-generation advanced air mobility to fulfill its potential.
Asked to predict who might emerge as dominant players from the ever-expanding pack of eVTOL startup ventures, he predicted that major commercial aviation groups will eventually take the lead in this sector, despite the extreme financial pressure now facing companies like Boeing and Airbus. “Mass matters," Langford commented. "The big guys will come back and pick up their plans, but for now, we can move at a time when others are paralyzed. Part of our plan is to build partnerships as we go forward because aviation is a very tough business."
After Boeing bought Aurora Flight Sciences, it continued an eVTOL project that Langford’s team had initiated under the name Pegasus. This program is supposedly still in progress under the name Personal Air Vehicle, although little has been heard about it since a test flight accident last year. In September, Boeing announced its intention to shut down its Boeing NeXt advanced technology division but it indicates that it remains committed to Aurora.
“In all the work we did on eVTOL aircraft, I kept coming up with answers about the cost that showed that very short takeoff and landing concepts would have significantly lower costs, and that actual vertical takeoff and landing performance is only required in a narrow set of circumstances and that in most locations space [for STOL operations] is available,” Langford told FutureFlight.
Electra’s founder views Switzerland’s Pilatus Aircraft as a strong role model for Electra, given its success with the PC-12 and PC-24 business aircraft. He has recruited the company’s former chief engineer Oliver Masefield to be Electra’s lead designer. The company’s leadership team includes a couple of highly regarded professors from the aeronautical engineering department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, John Hansman and Mark Drela, as well as former Boeing technical fellow Marty Bradley.
According to Langford, some of the aggressive timelines for service entry being touted by eVTOL aircraft pioneers are not realistic and, in any case, those who appear to be out in front in this race will not necessarily be the ones who find lasting success. “We think the certification path for this type of aircraft is well established and that we have enough redundancy in our path to certification to get there,” he concluded.