The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Transcend Reboots Its Air Mobility Offering with Redesigned Vy 421 VTOL Aircraft

Transcend Air is rebooting its ambitions for the advanced air mobility sector after confirming that it is now working on an improved version of the Vy 400 turbine-powered VTOL aircraft it has been developing since 2018. The new twin-engined Vy 421 model will be around 25 percent larger than the earlier design. It will be aimed at civil and military applications and will be able to carry eight people or a cargo payload of 3,500 pounds on flights of just over 1,000 miles at speeds of up to 486 mph.

What is unchanged is the U.S. company’s conviction that neither electric nor hybrid-electric propulsion offers a viable path to commercialization for new forms of vertical lift aviation. Instead, Transcend’s engineering team is looking to maximize speed, range, and payload performance by combining a pair of GE Aviation’s 2,500-shp CT7-8 turboshaft engines with its tiltwing architecture. Additional vertical lift is to be provided by four small ducted fans fitted in the rear fuselage.

The Boston-based company is fundraising as it starts work on a proof-of-concept, full-scale version of the Vy 421 and also the preliminary design for the version of the aircraft it aims to certify under FAA’s Part 21.17 (b) rules. An earlier timeline to start flight tests with the Vy 400 this year and be ready for service entry in 2025 has been revised to take account of the redesign. The company now expects to be ready to integrate the GE engine during the third quarter of 2025.

Over the past two years, the U.S. Air Force has supported Transcend’s work with four research and development contracts. The company made it through three down-select stages to become one of five final contenders for the Pentagon’s High-Speed VTOL Challenge run by the Afwerx unit of the Air Force Research Laboratory. It is also involved in the VTOL Family of Systems request for information process being conducted by the U.S. Marine Corps. Plans evaluated have included possible larger designs to replace aircraft such as the V-22 tiltrotor and the ubiquitous C-130 twin turboprop transport with models provisionally designated as the V-641 and the V-653, respectively.

Transcend's Vy 421 tiltwing aircraft
Working with IAI, Transcend is pursuing military customers for its Vy 421 tiltwing aircraft. (Image: Transcend)

Transcend does not intend to manufacture the Vy 421 aircraft when the model reaches series production. In 2021, it reached an agreement for Kaman Aerospace to produce the aircraft at its facility in Jacksonville, Florida, tapping its expertise in helicopter manufacturing.

Israel Aerospace Industries Could Help Unlock Military VTOL Applications 

In May, Transcend signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel Aerospace Industries to work with its North American division to develop military versions of the Vy 421. IAI has a broad product portfolio for defense and homeland security applications. It also has extensive experience in converting aircraft as well as manufacturing the G280 super-midsized business jets for Gulfstream and wings for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter.

Transcend sees the Vy 421 transforming the scope for regional air services that it believes are currently hampered by uncompetitive operating costs of existing aircraft and gridlock at major airports. It also feels the tiltwing could deliver far more to private aviation customers than today’s helicopters, with per-mile or per-trip costs that will be around half as much.

“The Vy 421 will [make] obsolete twin-engined executive helicopters for business and private use,” Transcend’s COO and co-founder, Peter Schmidt, told AIN. “It is three times faster, has twice the range, is far roomier with a standup cabin and space for both an enclosed full lavatory and galley and an enclosed cockpit, as well as featuring a whole-airframe parachute for enhanced safety. It combines the versatility of a helicopter with the comfort and performance of a light jet.”

Transcend plans to be at the forefront of commercial applications for the Vy 421, selling the aircraft and then operating them under what it refers to as its Part 135 Commuter Aerial Regional Transport (ART) service. Schmidt—who was previously president of Linear Air, a charter operator with a fleet of Eclipse very light jets—said the company intends to acquire a Part 135 operation around a year before the Vy 421 achieves type certification. “By owning the key intellectual property in the design and the software, we will retain exclusivity for the ART but will license other operators to conduct nonscheduled charter flights with the aircraft,” he explained.

Transcend's Vy 421 tiltwing aircraft
Transcend says its Vy 421 VTOL aircraft will outperform helicopters and open up new regional air services between cities. (Image: Transcend)

Along with CEO Gregory Bruell, Schmidt leads a 45-strong team working on the Vy 421, with 12 full-time employees. These include engineering vice president Jeff Spitzer, who has a background with companies including General Atomics and Ampaire.

Bruell told AIN that with its ability to fly steep approaches to landing sites and to accelerate quickly from a vertical takeoff, the Vy 421 will circumvent the growing community opposition to helicopters in places like East Hampton at the tip of Long Island in New York. He maintains that eVTOL aircraft will not be as quiet in practice as claimed by their developers, who he said have yet to be transparent about actual noise levels at full takeoff weights. Transcend also sees its aircraft serving as emergency medical support platforms.

Could eVTOL Promise Fall Short of Regulatory Requirements?

The loudly proclaimed eVTOL revolution remains a bone of contention for Transcend, with start-ups in this field greedily absorbing the bulk of available new private investment in aviation. But Bruell insists the science and the economics just don’t yet stack up for electric aviation. “The physics and the energy density hasn’t changed,” he told AIN, arguing that the range limits of battery-electric propulsion remain insufficient and that the anticipated air taxi business models will not be profitable at the sort of scales that he feels are achievable.

“However, the eVTOL investments have been strategically valuable in that they have made regulators focus on what we need to achieve to get certification,” Bruell added. And he believes the eVTOL pioneers now assuring their backers that commercial services and returns on investment are about to face a moment of truth, as the full scope of regulatory requirements becomes settled.

In a notice of proposed rulemaking spelling out its special federal aviation regulation (SFAR) covering “alternative eligibility requirements” for powered-lift aircraft, the FAA is making the case for 30-minute power reserves for daytime flights, rising to 45 minutes at night. In Transcend’s view, these requirements would give most in-development eVTOL vehicles insufficient range for commercially viable operations. The company also maintains that the SFAR’s insistence on dual flight controls will force some of their rivals back to the drawing board.

“We have a good sense of the investors involved [with eVTOL developers] and what we are seeing is people getting burned out waiting for returns,” said Bruell. “Then there are those who know aviation well and have sat back for now, and we are also looking at [possible investment from] family office money and strategic investors.”

Even allowing for the need to get the tiltwing architecture approved, Transcend maintains that its path to type certification is clear because the Vy 421 will mainly be derived from currently available off-the-shelf equipment.

Transcend's Vy 421 tiltwing aircraft
The wings on Transcend Vy 421 aircraft will tilt upwards to support vertical lift from its two GE CT7-8 turboshaft engines. (Image: Transcend)

“Electric aviation is a step in the wrong direction and only has any validity if the source of the energy used is truly renewable and they are trying to use electric power where it isn’t optimal,” Bruell commented. “And they [eVTOLs] are not just going to be able to land anywhere they want and fly through urban canyons [of high-rise buildings] to get there.”

The Vy 421’s use of turbine engines that still depend largely on fossil fuel might upset those who feel that aviation has to accelerate its march toward legally binding net zero carbon commitments. But Transcend’s plans call for the CT-7 engines to be able to transition to sustainable aviation fuel, and it has a partnership in place with a company called Prometheus Fuels that is devising plans to transform carbon dioxide from the air into liquid jet fuel that doesn’t depend on using bio-based sources of energy such as food stocks.

Transcend’s founders have long since acknowledged they will not be first-to-market in the hyperventilating AMM sector. They take comfort from their belief that by marching to the beat of a different drum they may yet have a more lasting impact in reshaping air mobility.