Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Flying with Electrons Over Vermont

BETA’selectric aircraft, ALIA, flies over the Vermont mountains during a test flight. (Credit: Brian Jenkins/BETA Technologies)

Michael J Daley

What takes off and lands like a helicopter, flies like an airplane, emits no carbon dioxide or pollution, and looks like a bird? It’s the Alia, a cutting-edge electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft being produced by Burlington, Vermont-based Beta Technologies. Aerospace engineer Kyle Clark, designer of Alia and founder of Beta, was inspired by the Arctic tern, a bird astonishing in its ability to fly long distances without landing.

Why the Alia caught this publication’s attention will be no surprise to our readers: it’s powered by batteries! Further, Beta intends to supply those electrons with renewable energy. With a 50-foot wingspan, the Alia is made of lightweight material, has four lift propellers and one rear pusher propeller, all-electric propulsion, travels 250 nautical miles on a single charge, has room for three standard pallets of cargo or five people, and can recharge in one hour. A trip from Burlington, VT to Brattleboro, the full length of the state of Vermont, would be no problem.

Alia is an expression of a vision to revolutionize not only aviation, but also intercity cargo delivery while fighting climate change. Not a bad agenda. Talented people from all over the world have been attracted by the call. Beta has grown from 30 employees to 350 in just five years. Over 90 job openings are presently posted on its website. Beta is attracting employees with deep backgrounds in aeronautics, former test pilots, and recently trained its first military personnel: the universal opinion seems to be that this is one exciting aircraft to fly.

If you live in the Lake Champlain area, you may have seen the elegant white aircraft swooping over the waves as it undergoes prototype development and flight testing while awaiting FAA approval for commercial operations. It’s out there over unpopulated spaces just in case. Flight testing is going well, with no major mishaps reported.

Another core value of the company is to encourage all employees to learn to fly. Beta has over 20 in-house flight trainers and lessons are free. Asked if she has signed up, the Beta spokesperson mentions “a few rides” but has not started training–yet. “It’s part of a core philosophy we have that everyone should get to fly. It’s part of the team-oriented focus. The more feel everyone has for aircraft systems, the better the plane we’ll design.”

The excitement and enthusiasm of being involved in this revolution fills her voice as she answers this reporter’s questions. She asked only to be identified as a Beta spokesperson because she did not want to bring herself too forward. Just four months into her job, she clearly reflects the team philosophy espoused by Clark, a former professional hockey player.

There’s no singular genius, Clark explained to Thom Patterson in an April 25, 2022 Flying Magazine article. “Everybody on a team has a role, whether you’re the headliner or a solid defenseman that nobody ever hears about. This is very close to home: I push away this notion that there’s a singular genius that figures all this out and moves forward. It’s a massive group effort of multiple geniuses, each in their own way putting it together.”

Lately, Clark, Beta and Alia have been receiving lots of attention in various media from technical aviation, to finance, to the Sunday Business section of The New York Times. Deservedly so. The Alia is on track to receive FAA approval for commercial operation (expected in 2024) just a few years since development began – quite an achievement for a totally unique aircraft. The New York Times reports Amazon investing heavily in Beta through its Climate Pledge Fund. Flying Magazine reports the Alia is the first electric aircraft piloted by the U.S. Air Force in its Agility Prime military research program, and that Beta also has purchase agreements with UPS, Blade Urban Air Mobility and the biotech company United Therapeutics.

As related in the April 16, 2022 New York Times piece, “The Battery that Flies,” the Alia represents the fulfillment of a dream for Martine Rothblatt, the founder of United Therapeutics, which makes human organs. As early as 2013, “Ms. Rothblatt wanted an electric heli-plane ‘to deliver the organs we are manufacturing in a green way,’ and fly them a considerable distance — say, between two mid-Atlantic cities. ‘Every single person told me it was impossible.’”

Not until 2017 and a chance meeting with Clark at a conference did Rothblatt find someone who finally said, “I can do it.” United Therapeutics supplied $1.5 million in seed money for Clark to get Beta Technologies off the ground, and the rest is soon to become aviation history.

Michael J. Daley is a life-long renewable energy educator and advocate, except for a brief time in high school when he though nuclear power was cool. He lives in a tiny off-grid cabin in Westminster, VT with his wife, Jessie Haas.

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