Electric Planes Take Off

Season 2, episode 24 • Published 11/24/23


Planes contribute 9% of the world’s carbon pollution, but electrifying them has always seemed impossible; batteries have never been powerful or light enough to carry themselves. But in 2023, batteries reached a tipping point in power and weight. Beta Technologies, based in Vermont, is flying its six-passenger vertical-takeoff airplanes every day. David Pogue was there at takeoff. 


Theme begins.

Everybody knows there’s no such thing as an electric plane. Sure, we’ve got electric cars. But you need a lot more power to lift a plane into the air than to just push a car along a road, and batteries are just too heavy. Too bad, ‘cause planes contribute 9% of the world’s carbon pollution. 

CLARK:             People have said from the beginning, “this is crazy. This doesn’t work.” But every year, batteries get better and better. 

POGUE:           So, you think before you and I die, that we will fly on an electric-powered jetliner?

CLARK:             Yes, absolutely. No question.

Last month, Beta Technologies cut the ribbon on its new factory—the first electric-plane plant outside of China—where it will begin manufacturing its six-person, vertical takeoff, all-electric plane—a plane that’s already flown 25,000 miles in testing and racked up orders from UPS, Air New Zealand, and the U.S. military. 

I’m David Pogue. And this is “Unsung Science.” 

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Season two, episode 24: Electric Planes Take Off. 

It’s October 2, 2023. I’m at the grand opening of a factory near Burlington, Vermont. Phil Scott, the governor of Vermont, says a few words.  

SCOTT:             As I often brag to my fellow governors across the country, it’s great having this kind of innovation happening right here in our state, right here in Vermont.

Senator Bernie Sanders is there, too.

BERNIE:           Who would’ve believed it? In our small state, we are leading the world in helping to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel and save the planet. That’s no small thing. (CHEERING & APPLAUSE)

This factory is gleaming and white and enormous. We’re talking 200,000 square feet, about three and a half football fields. You know—big.  

And parked in the center of this vast, shiny open space, behind the little stage, is the object of all the fuss: An airplane. Gleaming white, super sculpted, super shiny. Its cockpit is a bubble of wraparound glass, and on the top, it has what looks like two pontoonsrunning front to back, each with its own tail fin. We’re told that the whole thing is modeled on the skeleton of an Arctic tern. 

There’s a propeller in the back to push the plane forward—and on each of those pontoon things are two vertical propellers. Yes, this thing can take off and land vertically. 

And yet there’s also a traditional airplane wing, 50 feet wide—so it can also fly like a regular plane.

What it does not have—is a fuel tank. This is a six-person, all-electric plane. 

CLARK:             With cars going electric, marine going electric, locomotives gone hybrid electric, um, aviation is on track by 2035 to be the number one producer of carbon in transportation—unless we do something about it.

The company is called Beta Technologies, and Kyle Clark is the CEO and founder. The key to all of this, the piece of science that surprises a lot of people, is that batteries have been getting just a little bit better every year.

CLARK:             And that compounding rate is about 7 percent per year. And about five years ago, six years ago, a bunch of other smart folks at different companies said, “wow, the math is starting to close that the energy density of batteries will enable flight.” And we just crossed the threshold of doing commercially viable flight, which to us means regional flights, flights that are under 500 miles, which is about a third of all flights ,by the  way. But every year, batteries get better and better. That means in seven years, we’ll double that. Inanother seven years, we’ll double that again. So the idea that there will be never a  airliner that is powered entirely battery electric is hogwash. We keep making batteries better.

POGUE:           So, you think before you and I die that we will fly on an electric powered jet liner?

CLARK:             Yes, absolutely. No question. This first introduction will solve the regional airplanes. And then it’ll start looking at planes that go up and down the East Coast and go up and down the West Coast. And then once we solve that in the early 2030s, we get to actually transcontinental planes. And then by 2040, we start going across the Atlantic. 

POGUE:           So, how many companies are working on electric planes?

CLARK:             There are 300-plus companies that have identified themselves as working on electric planes.

POGUE:           Okay. And how many of those are actually flying prototypes?

CLARK:             I think there’s four to five companies that are flying full-scale prototypes.

POGUE:           How many are actually carrying people?

CLARK:             To my knowledge, we are the only company that is carrying people for test flights. 

Now, I gotta tell you: The idea of electric planes really thrills me. For the same reasons I love electric cars. Like, first of all: No emissions, no guilt. Second: They’re super quiet, both inside and outside. Third: The motor has about one-tenth the number of parts as a jet engine, so much more reliable. Fourth: Wayyyyy cheaper to fly, because electricity for a given flight costs maybe one-twentieth as much as jet fuel, or less.

They also tend to be very sleek and cool and futuristic looking. I should know, because I’ve been reading about electric planes and seeing artist’s mockups for years. But until that day in Vermont, I’d never seen one fly in person.

POGUE:           (LAUGH) So there is a big hype cycle involving electric planes.

CLARK:             Yeah.

POGUE:           I mean, why is it taking so long to get electric planes flying? You’ve shown that it can be done, but 300 companies, in articles in Popular Mechanics for 10 years, and hardly anybody is actually flying them?

CLARK:             My God, give us a break, will you?

POGUE:           (LAUGH)

CLARK:             So, no. The — the reality is, is that it takes time to introduce new technologies to a highly regulated environment, agree to the standards, and then were certified and then do reams of testing. Safety in aviation is exceptionally good right now. Like when was the last time—seven, eight years ago—that there was a fatal commercial aircraft crash?

POGUE:           Mm-hmm.

CLARK:             There’s an exceptionally high barrier to entry, right? So, it takes time to reach that threshold. 

What he’s talking about, of course, is the FAA. The Federal Aviation Administration is extremely thorough, extremely cautious, with mountains of regulations and requirements. That is why air travel is incredibly safe in the U.S. But it’s also why electric planes are taking so long to get off the ground.

CLARK:             The FAA has such a high bar of safety that we have to do it right, and that’s what we’re in right now. It’s testing and testing and testing, not the obvious things, but all the different dimensions of potential failure.

Remember, aerospace is technologically unforgiving. You don’t get to leave something on the table, be wrong. You don’t get to fool Mother Nature when it comes to aerospace. It has to be lightweight, super reliable and high performance. 

Now, if you’ve seen the same YouTube videos and magazine articles and “60 Minutes” stories that I have, you know that the buzzword in electric planes is… air taxis. 

COOPER:         If you’ve ever had the fantasy of soaring over bumper-to-bumper traffic in a flying vehicle, that may be possible sooner than you think.

Everybody’s chasing this dream of little tiny, vertical-takeoff plane things that carry just a few people, short distances, like downtown Manhattan to JFK airport. Board your plane on the top of a building! Hop over downtown traffic! Eliminate congestion! 

About 600 very smart people work at Beta Technologies, but the smartest one of all is whoever thought of this idea: Don’t start with air taxis. Start…with cargo.

CLARK:             There are a lot of ways that we can make a meaningful dent on the emissions of aviation before we start to do the thing that everybody talks about, jumping over traffic.

POGUE:           Yeah.

CLARK:             The packages don’t care. They don’t have any anxiety. They don’t have any concerns about how they’re being transported, right? That’s a little different than the ultimate application of hopping people over traffic. We believe, and I believe, that we’re gonna get there. But first, we’re gonna go through cargo, medical, logistics, airport to airport.  It’s not an immediate introduction of the Jetsons, right? It’s a long progression to get there, and we’re — we’re moving right on it, right?

The challenging thing about air taxis is not the vehicle. It’s siting landing areas in municipalities that are really adverse to any type of new transportation like that.

POGUE:           Well, they always say, “the tops of skyscrapers!”

CLARK:             Yeah. But there’s a — there’s a long way to go. Let me give you an example. We need to bring 1.2, 1.4 megawatts up to the top of the skyscraper to recharge these things, right?

POGUE:           Oh.

CLARK:             There’s a lot of infrastructure that has to happen to do that. I’m probably the only CEO of a electric aircraft company that has taken my helicopter and landed at every public-use helipad in New York. They are not super accessible. You need a nimble, maneuverable aircraft to get tucked into there. It’s busy. You’re holding over the Hudson or the East River. It’s a complicated airspace already. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to air traffic control before it’s really commercially viable to have a high cadence of air taxis going in and out of busy cities.  And that’s not the case at the 4,300 underutilized regional and state airports, right? We can do a mission today with an airplane that’s all electric by serving regional cargo flights.

POGUE:           Mm-hmm.

CLARK:         And we don’t need any changes in rules and we don’t need a municipality to adopt a new form of transportation. And I believe that we will be flying people in and outta cities before anybody else does, because people will want to get on a plane that has thousands of examples flying millions of flight hours, maybe just fulfilling your Amazon and UPS orders, before they get on a brand-new plane that is only fit for passenger service.

You know what else is so smart about starting with cargo? Remember: The big hurdle to electric aviation is not technology. It’s the FAA. And Kyle Clark’s thinking goes like this: the FAA is more likely to approve a new kind of aircraft that’s just carrying boxes.

CLARK:             So, what’s happened is that we’ve become kind of the pragmatic doers of the industry. We have flight test. We’ve got these facilities. We’ve got beautiful aircraft. We’ve got a bunch of customers. 

Customers like UPS, Air New Zealand, and the U.S. Army, which have placed over 600 orders for the Beta plane. 

Now, remember I mentioned those four propellers on the top? Turns out you can order your plane with or without them. Beta will be selling the plane, which is called the Alia, in two configurations. First, as a traditional one that takes off on a runway; alternatively, as an eVTOL, the annoying acronym that stands for electric, vertical-takeoff-and-landing plane. eVTOL.

POGUE:           What happens to the vertical rotors when you’re in horizontal flight?

CLARK:             Yeah.

POGUE:           They don’t, like, fold up or disappear?

CLARK:             The way the aircraft works is it starts in a stationary position. All four of those top rotors turn on and it lifts it up into the air, right? That pusher rotor starts pushing it forward.

The pusher rotor is the propeller at the back.

CLARK:             And as it accelerates, those four rotors in the top, slow down and slow down and slow down. And after about 30 seconds, they stop and they point into the wind, and then you’re flying a hundred percent on the wing. Now, when they stop and they point into the wing, they’re very slippery. They’re long and slender. 

Turns out the propellers use a lot more power than the wings do. Vertical movement costs you more electricity than horizontal. 

CLARK:             So, only about a minute of a total two-and-a-half hour flight are those top rotors on.

That business of offering two models of the plane—one that takes off vertically, one that needs a runway—is also shrewd thinking. Guess which model is more likely to win the FAA’s approval first? Yup. The one that’s just like a regular plane, the one that the FAA has known for years, but electric. It’s not as much of a leap for the regulators to assess.

CLARK:             The regulatory framework, all of the rules and understanding within the FAA, are clear and black-and-white for an airplane. 

POGUE:           Oh, I see. So, the FAA hasn’t really decided how to certify a vertical takeoff machine.

CLARK:             That’s exactly right. 

I know I’m mentioning the FAA a lot, and Kyle Clark thinks about the FAA a lot. But I mean, here’s an example of what he’s up against:

CLARK:             For example, our electric motor is defined by the FAA as an “electric engine.” And me as a scientist, I’m like, “there’s no such thing as an electric engine!” But they call it an electric engine so it fits better in the historical regulation frame.

POGUE:           But an engine is something that burns fuel to produce motion.

CLARK:             Precisely.

POGUE:           You don’t even have one.

CLARK:             Exactly. There is no engine. But it’s called an electric engine so that it fits within the prior regulation. The intent and the quality of the work at the FAA is pure, and it’s really good. It’s thepremier safety standard in the world for aviation. Yet, with that comes inertia, right? And we have to overcome that inertia and then move on. 

So here’s the grand plan: After the FAA has approved Beta’s fixed-wing electric plane, Beta can bring them the vertical-takeoff model. And it can say, “See, FAA? It’s just like the electric plane you already certified, but with propellers.” Not such a big leap.

POGUE:           But why Vermont? It seems like all the engineering talent is in California.

CLARK:             Vermont is spectacular, first of all. There’s a lot of smart people here. It’s a healthy state, very cognizant of climate change. Um, we have the largest–iin Vermont, our electric grid is 98 percent renewable. It is the best in the country.

POGUE:           The whole state?

CLARK:             The whole state.

POGUE:           Wow.

CLARK:             But let me extend that one step further. Um, in Vermont, there’s a — a heavy awareness of climate change. And having a group of people working on this that not only are really good at what they do, but they care about the mission, gives them a little extra oomph at two in the morning when we’re trying to get ready for a flight test the next morning. And that those long Saturday afternoons, when you want to get home, and you’re like, “I am driven to the mission that I signed up for. And it wasn’t something somebody told me to do. It came from here.”

And as he says “here,” he pats his heart.

I spent two days with Clark and his company, shooting a “CBS Sunday Morning” story. And I gotta tell you, his employees really believe in him, and the mission. 

One of my chaperones was Chris Caputo, who spent 31 years in the Air Force as a combat-fighter pilot, and then spent a few years as a commercial pilot, flying 757s and 767s for Delta. 

POGUE:           So if you’ve been there a while, the pay gets pretty good.

CHRIS:             Uh, it does. Yeah. 

POGUE:           Did you take a pay cut to come here?

CHRIS:             Uh, I did. A pretty healthy pay cut. But it’s — it’s more about, you know, the mission that this company is on to decarbonize aviation and — and do something good for our planet, our country and the world. And, you know, your kids, my kids, and the next generation.

So who is this Kyle Clark, anyway? 

CLARK:             My father, uh, was an engineer. My mother was an artist. My father ran a machine shop and a medical device development, uh, group at the university here, and I just hung out in his machine shop. And I would build all kinds of different airplanes and go to the airport up here, help people with old Russian fighters and — and just to get a ride in them, right, just to fly them. And then when I went to college, I really, really wanted to go into aerospace engineering, but Harvard, unfortunately, didn’t have aerospace engineering.

POGUE:           Oh.

CLARK:             So, I pursued material science, and — and I went to the engineering and applied math school and studied material science. And then when it came time for me to do my thesis, I said, “I’m gonna write it on the airplanes that I’ve been imagining, BETA Air.” That’s where the beginnings of it was.

I’ve always thought that “Beta” is a risky name for a plane company. I mean, in the tech world, “beta” means “beta testing,” meaning, “not finished,” meaning, “buggy.” Is that the name you want for the company that’s going to carry human beings into the sky?

Well, in this case, Beta does not refer to the hardware or the software. It was Clark’s hockey nickname. That’s right: He played hockey in high school, in college, and even professionally. He was actually the captain of the US National Junior Team, the feeder team for the Olympics team. The dude is 6’7… can you imagine him coming at you on skates? 

CLARK:             And so, I started promoting this new type of pusher aircraft design with a high wing, super slippery, with intuitive airplane controls. And it actually won the thesis of the year in the engineering department down there, but I couldn’t get anybody to invest in it. In fact, like there was people who were like, “hey, I’ll invest in any crazy business you want to do, but not that airplane thing.”

POGUE:           (LAUGH)

CLARK:             So, it took me from about 2002, when I first kind of got the ideas together, until 2017 when Martine Rothblatt said, “whoa, I’ll bet on that,” of pitching this idea of BETA Air.” 

That would be pilot and entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt, who made her fortune by co-founding Sirius satellite radio.

CLARK:             And she said, well, let’s do something more meaningful for society. Let’s — let’s move cargo that is of the most important kind, medical cargo. And she goes, if you do that, I’ll support you on this. 

She became the first of many investors in a company that’s now worth 2.4 billion dollars.

Anyway, the big unveiling of the plant was only the beginning of what was, for me, the world’s coolest show-and-tell. After the break, I’ll tell you how I went up in the air with the electric plane, and even got to fly it myself—sort of. 

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So, contrary to my deliberately clickbaity cliffhanger before the break, I have not personally flown inside the Alia electric plane. The FAA has not certified it for civilians like me. So at this point, only pilots get to fly it. 

But the company did offer me the next best thing: To fly along right next to it in a regular plane. A chase plane. A tiny four-seater. A Diamond Twin Star DA42, if you must know.

RADIO:            Experimental 251, uniform tango Burlington ground, hold position. You’ll be about a one-minute delay.

RADIO:            One-minute delay for 250 uniform tango, fly to two.

My new friend Chris Caputo, the former Air Force jet pilot and Delta pilot, is at the controls.

CHRIS:             You can see it’s a very busy airport. We got two airliners, Delta Airlines, United. You got multiple general aviation aircraft–comin’ into the airport. This airport is the second busiest airport in New England only behind Logan Airport.

POGUE:           Oh my god. (LAUGH)

The Beta plane’s tail number is N251UT, so you’ll hear the air-traffic controller addressing it as 251 Uniform Tango.

RADIO:            251 uniform tango, copy all taxi– to runway one-nine via Lima. Hold short of runway one-nineat Lima.

RADIO:            Okay, 251 uniform tango– copy all. One-nine at Lima. Is there any chance– to just shoot out alpha to runway one-five for departure?

RADIO:            And uniform tango, unable. There’s gonna be a JetBlue parking at that corner.

RADIO:            Okay. Copy on the JetBlue. We’d be willin’ to wait for him to pull into the jet bridge. 

At one point, as we were taxiing, we were watching the Alia, the Beta electric plane, with an Air Force stealth fighter jet on the runway directly behind it. Our cameraman, Will, was sitting in the front right seat of our chase plane.

CHRIS:             You got the most recent military state-of-the-art stealth fighter out there and the most recent all-electric state-of-the-art ALIA. That’s pretty cool, huh?

POGUE:           That’s the shot, yeah.

CHRIS:             You’re gonna be famous for that shot right there. (LAUGH) Doesn’t get any better than that. You guys are gettin’ a glimpse into the future of aviation right here. Front-row seat, huh?

Finally, it was time for takeoff. Today, Beta was testing its conventional-takeoff plane—minus the vertical propellers—for a short hop from the Burlington airport to Plattsburgh, New York.

RADIO:            Runway heading 15, full length. Clear for takeoff. 251 uniform tango.

We both took off roughly simultaneously….

CHRIS:             We’re airborne. He’s airborne—

…but it quickly became clear that the electric plane was much faster than our gas-powered one.

CHRIS:             I can’t even keep up with ‘em. On full power, and he’s walkin’ away from me! (LAUGH)

POGUE:           Are you tellin’ me that a battery-operated toy is goin’ faster than you are?

CHRIS:             That battery-operated engineering dream is out-climbing us and going faster–  He’s literally walkin’ away from me– I am full power, gears up, flaps are up. /

POGUE:           Come on, man, step on it. (LAUGH)  You’ve got the power of 60 years of aviation in your hands!

CHRIS:             I can’t do anything else, David. I don’t have the afterburner!

POGUE:           Bet you miss that.

CHRIS:             I do. (LAUGH)

At 2500 feet, on a brilliant October day, we had an infinite blue sky above us, and Lake Champlain glittering below us. And about 100 yards off our wing, we saw the Alia—this gorgeous, shiny white aircraft, sailing gracefully through the air.

CHRIS:             Isn’t that beautiful?

POGUE:           Oh, man. This is like– 

CHRIS:             All electric.

POGUE:           –like an ad for the future. Wow!

This was going to be only a 15-minute flight. But even so, the disparity in fuel costs was stunning. 

CHRIS:             As we’re– pollutin’ the environment, burnin’ fossil fuels, that thing is just sippin’ energy right now.

POGUE:           Oh, man.

CHRIS:             His flight’s gonna cost about $10. And this flight is gonna cost us about $200.

POGUE:           In fuel?

CHRIS:             In fuel alone.

POGUE:           Oh, man. (LAUGH)

The noise level for the pilots in the Alia was radically different, too.

CHRIS:             Right now, if we were to take off our– our headsets, we’d have a tough time c– communicating. It’s so loud in this aircraft. The two of those guys could take their helmets off right now and converse at a normal– you know, normal—

And the operational complexity was different.

CHRIS:             So in this aircraft in particular, I’m keeping track of the percent load on the– on both my left and right motors, the RPM on both the left and right engines, the fuel flow, the oil temperature, oil pressure, coolant temps, fuel temps, and the quantity. The bus voltages on both the left and right, the amperage that I’m drawing, the gearbox temperatures. You don’t have all of that in Alia.  So you basically have one system, an electrical system that you’re monitoring. It’s quite, you know, elegant.

This wasn’t a journalist joyride, by the way. We were observing a regular test flight of the Alia. They were putting it through various tricky maneuvers to see how it could recover. 

CHRIS:             Nick, the test pilot, is getting set up for wing-level stalls.

RADIO:            Chase ALIA, we’re– on condition 2.1 here we go.

RADIO:            Chase.

CHRIS:             He’s stallin’ the aircraft.

POGUE:           On purpose? He’s stalling on purpose!

A stall is when your plane is angled up too steeply for air to flow over its wings. At that point, you lose your lift, and your plane starts to fall out of the sky. It’s generally considered uncool to stall and fall out of the sky.

POGUE:           How will he recover from that?

CHRIS:             Oh, he’ll just relax the back stick pressure, decrease the AOA, just like he did–

POGUE:           Whoa!

CHRIS:             And he recovers from the wings-level stall in idle. That was awesome. Looked great from back here.

POGUE:           Cool.

CHRIS:             What I think’s so remarkable is just how stable the aircraft is when he’s actually stalled the wing and is not producin’ lift anymore.

In other words, once the pilot took his hands off the controls of the Alia, it exited the stall automatically. All he had to do was …nothing.

CHRIS:             Did you ever get to think that you’d be this close to an all electric aircraft?

POGUE:           I wanna be closer—I wanna be in it!(LAUGH)

CHRIS:             Well, maybe Jake can arrange that later at a later date.

POGUE:           Once the FAA gives the green light.

JAKE:               That’s exactly right.

CHRIS:             All right. We are cleared to land. I’ll get us on center line here. 


CHRIS:             There we go. How’d that feel?

POGUE:           That wasn’t bad.

CHRIS:             Like landing a butterfly with sore feet. /

POGUE:           Is that what they say?

CHRIS:             (LAUGH) That’s what they say.

Once we were back on the ground in Burlington, Chris Caputo—and Jake, the PR guy—took pity on me. They let me fly the Alia—in the simulator.

I mean, this machine is not, you know, an iPad. It’s a full-size mockup of the real Alia cockpit, with all the same seats, same controls and screens. It has all the same sounds and vibrations of the real plane. Same wraparound view, too. And it’s in a dedicated room, dark and black, except for this huge projection screen. The walls in front of the cockpit are basically the inside of a huge sphere, so that wherever you look, you see video of what you would actually see if you were flying.

It’s very convincing.

CHRIS:             This is what we refer to as Thunderdome. We’ve trained army pilots, air force, test pilots, FAA test pilots in this simulator, and then put ‘em in the plane.

POGUE:           In these very seats?

CHRIS:             In these very seats. Uh, some of the world’s best pilots have — have come through this facility, sat in this simulator.

POGUE:           And now here I come.

CHRIS:             And now here you are (LAUGH). The — the — the next future, uh, Alia best pilot in the world.

There’s no yoke, no steering wheel. Instead, there are just two handles, one on each side of your chair. One is sort of a metal fist at your right side, like the end of an armrest. 

CHRIS:             So that’s what we call the inceptor. It’s a — a side stick, force-based side stick. It has both pitch, roll, and yaw.

POGUE:           Ahh.

CHRIS:             Uh, all in your right hand.

Down by my left side was another horizontal bar, like an armrest that had been installed way too low, down by your hip.

CHRIS:             And then down here is what we call the lift lever and the pusher throttle. So with your left hand, you’re gonna control lift and the push motors here, and you’re gonna control how you maneuver the aircraft with your right hand.

POGUE:           All right.

CHRIS:             So with your left hand, just slowly pick up the lift lever, and you’re gonna increase your torque where—you see that motor?

POGUE:           Yeah.

CHRIS:             All you’re doing is increasing the torque to each one of your lift motors.

POGUE:           I can actually feel vibration. /

CHRIS:             But just keep, keep pulling this up and put that hand right there.

POGUE:           All right. But wait — wait, before we do that, I have to do this:

CHRIS:             Okay. 

POGUE:           Welcome to Air Pogue. Please ensure that your expectations are in a full upright and locked position at all times. (LAUGH) How’d I do?

CHRIS:             You did outstanding. 

As I pulled up on the left lever, the four simulated propellers on top of the simulated plane began spinning simulated faster—and suddenly, we were simulated rising off the ground.

CHRIS:             Okay. So now you’re just in a nice stable hover. 

POGUE:           Oh, whenever I’m not doing anything, it goes stable.

CHRIS:             It does.

POGUE:           Like a — like a well-behaved drone.

CHRIS:             Like a well-behaved drone.

POGUE:           Okay. 

CHRIS:             Now, if you wanted to move the plane forward, just push forward with a little pressure on the stick. You’re spinning up the back two motors and the plane will start translating forward.

POGUE:           Gotcha.

CHRIS:             Now here’s the mind twist here. So with your right hand — turn and hold it. And let’s point over towards —

POGUE:           The lake?

CHRIS:             The beautiful view of the Adirondack. (LAUGH) That’s what I tell everybody. The best thing about Vermont is the view of the Adirondack.

POGUE:           This is not bad. Can we fly over the lake?

CHRIS:             Absolutely.  So you’re gonna take your right thumb here.

POGUE:           Yep.

CHRIS:             And roll your pusher motor all the way forward. Do a hundred percent.

POGUE:           Oh, okay. So this is the propeller in the back?

CHRIS:             This is the propeller in the back. So now we’re getting onto the wing of the plane. We’re gonna get air flow over that big, beautiful 50-foot air foil. 

POGUE:           Okay.

CHRIS:             Level off, really gentle. And we’re just gonna stow the lift motors now, and we’re gonna turn those off.

POGUE:           (LAUGH) Oh.

CHRIS:             And we’re — and just trim the plane up with a little bit of right aileron trim there.

POGUE:           I was gonna say, right aileron trim is what we need right now.

CHRIS:             13:58:08 That’s — that’s right. You need a little bit of right aileron trim. 

In other words, we were now flying like a regular plane. The four propellers above us had slowed to a stop, coming to rest parallel to our direction of travel so as not to introduce drag.

CHRIS:             So now we’re just flying on the wing of the plane. We are literally just sipping energy out of the high-voltage energy storage system in those batteries. And, you know, you have — how much flight time do you have? (LAUGH)

POGUE:           Now? About 90 seconds. (LAUGH)

CHRIS:             So you could see in — in a — a few short minutes, um, how you were able to literally take off, uh, an all-electric vertical takeoff and land aircraft, transition onto the wing. 

At the end of our flight, we returned to the simulated Burlington airport and landed vertically.

POGUE:           So at this point, I’m a helicopter.

CHRIS:             Certainly if you have a runway available, you just land on the wing like a fixed-wing plane, ‘cause you’re not going to use as much energy. But if you — if you didn’t have a runway available, you can just come down in the vertical mode.

POGUE:           Okay. Okay. Now we’re down.

CHRIS:             And then we stow the lift motors, and mission complete.

POGUE:           Wow, dude. Thank you!

CHRIS:             You’re very welcome.

POGUE:           You’re a good instructor. I’ll take two of these.

CHRIS:             Well done. All right. (LAUGH) We’ll add you to the order book.

POGUE:           Oh, that was cool. Really, really cool. Like when I do Microsoft simulator on my phone? It’snot like this.

CHRIS:             No?

Oh, and this has nothing to do with electric planes, but I thought I’d treat you to this astonishing bit of conversation I had with this former commercial pilot:

CHRIS:             Believe it or not most, um, commercial airline pilots spend about six to seven minutes of any given flight actually at — with their hands on the controls of the plane.

POGUE:           Oh, my gosh. Really?

CHRIS:             The rest of it is automated. Yeah. The computers, they’re — they’re so good. On the majority of the Delta airlines aircraft, it literally can land the plane, track the center line on the ILS, auto-brake, and bring the aircraft to a stop. In zero zero visibility. 

POGUE:           You use that?

CHRIS:             Oh, yes, absolutely.

POGUE:           Wow. 

CHRIS:             Some of the smaller ones don’t have that functionality. But, um, yeah, the level of automation is — is pretty incredible these days.

Six or seven minutes. Man!

Anyway. By the end of my visit, I was pretty fired up. I could see how this was all going to work. I’d been bitten by the Kyle Clark electric-aviation bug. I was just frustrated that it was taking so long.

POGUE:           So, within months you’re gonna start manufacturing planes right here, right? So, at what point in the future will these be out there, flying, certified by the FAA, the whole thing?

CLARK:             Yeah. So, we’re entering production now. Those first aircraft go to the military and they start flying there. And the next ones go overseas to places where we have achieved regulatory approval to fly like in the UAE, hopefully down in New Zealand, up in the Northern parts of Canada.

It’s both like intriguing in a little sad that a lot of our initial deployments happen overseas, because the regulatory thresholds are different, right? So we —

POGUE:           It seems like the safety threshold is lower?

CLARK:             I wouldn’t say it’s lower. I would say that they’re less tied to legacy regulation, and they’re able to look forward a little bit easier.

POGUE:           Mm-hmm.

CLARK:             Through 2024, we’re deploying them to the military and to overseas. And, uh, and we build more airplanes for the following year when these aircraft are certified in 2025. And they go into meaningful commercial missions domestically here in the U.S.

POGUE:           And what is the military’s interest in all this?

CLARK:             Yeah. /[13] So the military looked at it, and said, “It is a tactical advantage to not have to carry fuel around. If I can charge up on a ship and go to shore and come back and not have to bring jet fuel onto the ship, that’s a good thing, right? And I can do it really quietly and I can do it without a big thermal signature.” 

So, electric aviation is fuel-free, low logistics tail, really quiet and really cold.

POGUE:           So the enemy that has some infrared camera that looks for the heat signature of airplanes –will not see this?

CLARK:             That’s absolutely right. I mean, look, in Ukraine right now, they make decoys by putting thermal signatures out. And then the Russians will fire at this place where they see a thermal signature and they’ll be like, “oh, just kidding! Now, we know where you are, right?” So, we want airplanes that don’t have thermal signatures. And it turns out electric aircraft stay cold. They don’t have jet engines.

POGUE:           That’s crazy. 

CLARK:             There is a broad awareness that if we can reduce the fuel dependency of our military, it will not only — not destroy our planet, which we’re all trying not to do, but it’ll give them a tactical advantage and an advantage in not putting human lives at risk moving fuel.

By the way—I don’t know if you picked up on this, but the Beta planes, so far, require a pilot. Some of the rival electric-plane companies are developing completely autonomous aircraft that don’t require a pilot at all. Self-driving air taxis.

POGUE:           Are you behind the curve by requiring a human to drive them?

CLARK:             Ultimately, we will be flying autonomous passenger, vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. That’s down the road. But in managing the introduction of this, to maximize safety and do it in a timely manner, we believe the best way to do it is to introduce the airplane with a pilot. There’s a framework and an air traffic control system that relies on the pilot to make decisions around safety. Not when everything’s going well—that’s an easy problem to solve—It’s when things are not going well.

POGUE:           Hmm.

CLARK:             So, we believe starting with a pilot makes a ton of sense. And, uh — and in time, we’ll start taking the pilots out first in cargo and logistics, right? And then 10 years later, we’ll take the pilots out in passenger.

POGUE:           Well, I, for one, can’t wait to buy my first ticket, go to New Zealand if I have to.

CLARK:             Can I sell you an airplane today?

POGUE:           (LAUGH) 4 million, is that right?

CLARK:             Yeah, approximately. We’ll give you a deal.