Unlike most planes – you see the Beta Alia before you hear it.
The plane, which has a 50-foot wingspan, is small and quiet compared to the passenger airlines passing over the treeline to the east of Duke Field. Rounded features on the bird and white paint give it a space-ship-like quality. With the number of people gathered at Duke Field on a Thursday afternoon, you could be excused for thinking it came from Mars.
The plane has two modes. One allows for vertical take-off and landing – the other, the mode it is configured for today, has three propellors that quietly coast it through the sky. The plane has an effective range of 250 nautical miles on its five batteries. Each of those batteries is equivalent to a battery in a Telsa car – according to the manufacturer’s public relations team member on site. The Air Force specially installed a battery terminal to charge the plane on Duke Field’s property, near the flight line.
The plane made almost 20 stops on the 2,000 mile-ish trip from its roost in South Burlington, Vermont to Duke Field – though many of the stops were as a part of the planes public-relations tour, the press team at Beta noted.
Before the plane arrived, two Vietnam-era Huey helicopters were shuttled out of the way to make room for the new toy in the toy box.
The Air Force partnered with Beta to create and use this all-electric aircraft, hoping it would contribute specific advantages to the future of flight for military and civilian applications. “I think an ideal result [of this partnership] is to expose issues on the airplane. Every time we go on a test flight, we are not trying to prove that the math works. We are trying to learn stuff we don’t know [by] coming down here and getting outside of our existing test area,” Kyle Clark, the CEO of Beta, said, “We’re fundamentally a research and development company that’s moving into production right now. So that is really, really concentrated great information.”
Clark also hopes to benefit from the Air Force’s methodology regarding repair and maintenance procedures. They are processes the Air Force has had plenty of time to develop and refine – but a start-up like Beta hasn’t had. “A big part of aviation is not just flying the airplane, it’s all the things that go into ensuring that [flying] happens on schedule and safely.”
Colonel Elliott Leigh, the chief commercialization officer for the Department of the Air Force, says Big Blue will benefit from the partnership as well. “We are going to learn a lot of things about these aircraft. But, we’ve already seen potential use cases for things like personnel recovery, for aeromedical evacuation, and even just airlift for small items we need to move around, so that we are not scheduling a large transport aircraft to do work that could be done on a lighter platform. These are also compared to the assets that we have on hand, much smaller in terms of the cost to operate, the logistics required, whether that’s spare parts or just fuel.”
Clark noted that the cost of the power for the last leg of the flight, which was about 114 miles, took about $10 worth of electricity. He motioned to the caravan plane that accompanied the team on their journey from Burlington, Vermont, to Duke Field and noted the conventional AvGas plane cost about $400 to fuel up.
In addition to a future with reduced flight costs, the plane promises a platform that can be used for manned and unmanned missions. While the plane is here for its three-month tour, it will have pilots inside the cockpit, but the testing may lay the groundwork for the future of both manned and unmanned civil and military aviation. “The beautiful thing about having this kind of flight control system is that it doesn’t really matter [if the pilot is onboard]. But, there are definitely times when you want a human decision-maker on board to coordinate [and] navigate real-time,” said Clark, “In my opinion, this is not about the efforts of general technology adoption. It would be pretty naive to think that the technical introduction should be done on all fronts concurrently. It’s a huge benefit to fly with zero fuel. Let’s do that. Let’s wring it out. It’s a huge benefit to fly without a pilot. In certain cases, it’s a huge benefit to fly quietly. So a step-wise, pragmatic approach is the approach we’ve taken in our development. And this, to me, is just one step in that broad development to increase the capability, but the foundation and the platform are there.”