How Beta Technologies solved its eVTOL transition problems

Beta’s first crewed transition flight was a milestone for the company and the eVTOL industry as a whole.

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Release Date
April 23, 2024
How Beta Technologies solved its eVTOL transition problems

Shortly after 8 a.m. on Wednesday, April 17, Beta Technologies’ second full-scale Alia prototype took off from Plattsburgh International Airport in New York for a five-minute lap around the pattern. Piloted by Nate Moyer, a former U.S. Air Force experimental test pilot, the electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft first rose vertically off the ground using thrust from its four lifting propellers, then slowly transitioned into forward flight through the gradual application of its rear pusher prop. When Alia was generating sufficient lift from its wing, Moyer stopped the lifting props, functionally transforming Alia into an airplane. In the last minute of the flight, once established on final approach for Runway 35, he restarted the lifting props, decelerated over the runway into a hover, then touched down gently in a vertical landing.

The flight was not the first crewed eVTOL transition from thrust-borne to wing-borne flight and back again: Wisk predecessor Zee Aero performed one with its third-generation eVTOL in August 2017. However, Beta’s is the first to be revealed by any of the companies currently vying to certify a piloted aircraft, and is particularly notable in coming from a company whose VTOL prospects had been written off by many industry observers. It was no secret in the industry that Beta had been struggling to make its VTOL design work. After the Vermont-based company announced plans to prioritize an electric conventional take-off and landing (eCTOL) version of Alia in March 2023, many people assumed that Beta had essentially given up on VTOL, despite reporting from The Air Current to the contrary.

Related: Unpacking the strategy behind Beta’s new electric airplane

Transition is a challenging flight regime for any winged VTOL aircraft because of the complex dynamics involved in moving between thrust-borne and wing-borne flight. While Alia’s lift-plus-cruise design is mechanically simpler than eVTOLs with tilting propellers, it came with its own set of problems to solve before a successful transition was physically possible. Last week’s flight in Plattsburgh signaled not only that Beta has solved these problems, but solved them with the level of confidence required to put the life of a test pilot at stake — which is why a crewed transition flight is such a meaningful milestone. The story behind the flight does much to explain why it has taken the entire industry so long to reach this point.

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