The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Paragon Aerospace Reboots Its Hydrogen VTOL Project in Texas

Paragon Aerospace expects to unveil the second iteration of a design for its hydrogen-powered VTOL aircraft and roll out a “half-dozen to a dozen” quarter-scaled models of the nine-seat machine by the first quarter of 2022. Company founder Dwight Smith told FutureFlight that he is also refining plans to build a factory on 730 acres in the Texas border town of Brownsville, where he envisions the establishment of a VTOL hub to serve a network of vertiports in cities as far afield as Los Angeles.

The new plan marks a change of course for the start-up, which began working on an earlier design called the T21 Raptor in 2018, with ambitions to get the vehicle certified by the end of 2021. In 2020, when the company based its operations in California, it had been preparing for a first flight by the end of that year, but the Paragon team subsequently resolved to take a different approach.

Smith, a native of Jamaica with a background in marine biology, said he built his first glider at age 7 and flew general aviation airplanes in high school. As an adult, he combined his passion for aviation with a keen interest in sustainability, founding Paragon as the foundation for his grand plans to establish a vertiport network in Jamaica based on the Raptor.

Although the Raptor program progressed to the prototype stage, Smith said it became clear that the aircraft wouldn’t perform up to his expectations, largely due to the noise it would have produced. “We learned that the majority of the off-the-shelf parts we used just weren’t ready for prime time,” he explained. “And so we would have to introduce dozens of propellers in an open format, which would have increased the noise factor, and we were not willing to do that.

“I'm a big stickler on perfection, so to speak, and so I wanted something a lot quieter,” he told FutureFlight. “I wanted something that can handle a large, heavy payload. I want something that is universally adaptable depending upon what Mother Nature throws at us. So we've been developing everything from the airframe to the electric motors to the thermal equipment. You name it, we've been developing our own proprietary set of products and the ecosystem to support it. Because without that, there is no more than a shiny object.”

Paragon’s latest effort, called the Soar, would carry eight passengers and a pilot between 300 and 400 miles and four passengers as far as 900 miles using eight motors, each producing 700 pounds of thrust for the duration of the flight, which Smith called an industry first. Rather than carbon fiber, the airframe would consist of a cheaper, more sustainable proprietary composite capable of deflecting ice, thereby doing away with the need for de-icing components, he added. 

In pursuit of a rather aggressive schedule that calls for a first flight in 2022, Smith says, the prototype will initially fly with a makeshift hybrid combination of a hydrogen-fueled engine and batteries. Paragon has resolved to base the propulsion system for the production aircraft on an as-yet-undefined turbine directly burning liquid hydrogen, in the belief that existing fuel cell technology will not support the performance and cost-efficiency that it wants from the Soar. The design features eight ducted fans, six of which are in the body of the fuselage, with two more tilting fans at the rear of the airframe.

Smith acknowledged that he will likely need to raise “north of $1 billion” to bring the Soar aircraft to market. He remains tight-lipped about likely funding sources but indicated that his plans include a possible merger, followed by share flotation, with a special purpose acquisition company.

“[We’ve drawn] mostly private funding,” he explained. “We haven’t done an institutional raise of any sort or any private equity [venture capital]. I am not the CEO, I am the chief visionary officer and founder, but I wanted to make sure that before we did our actual raise, we had something [to show]. We’re getting ready to pursue that, but it hasn’t been something that’s been a priority for me since the outset.”

Paragon's management team includes CEO Ken Peterman, former president of aerospace satellite company ViaSat, and chief technology officer Robert Frederick, the first manager of Amazon's ASW program and former leader of the company's Anywhere initiative and device strategy.

Smith pushed back somewhat on doubts about the viability of Brownsville given its relatively small size, noting that Space X bases its launch operations there, for one, and its close proximity to Mexico, a potential source of workers and components. Smith also praised the potential of the workforce in the Texas town, where he plans to hold a recruitment fair in the fall.

“I am a big fan of Brownsville residents,” he told FutureFlight. “They’re hard-working, multigenerational families that live within Brownsville. The second part is in the [Rio Grande Valley], you have the resacas [dry lake beds and brackish water tributaries]. And that is very important for us to be able to do a lot of our test flying over these water tributaries. The third part is also the support of the mayor and his entire team. I don't think I would be able to find anywhere else in Texas, the way in which Brownsville is willing to roll up their sleeves.”

Meanwhile, Smith hasn’t abandoned his plans for Jamaica and said he intends to start test flying out of Kingston next summer, ostensibly in time to start service in 2024 or 2025. From there, Paragon would fly its VTOL over the surrounding Caribbean waters and over mountain areas at altitude. “We want to be able to get the full gamut of microclimates and terrain that Jamaica has,” he explained.

Smith also cited Jamaica’s favorable regulatory environment, where testing can begin before engineers present all the operational data required for the same kind of flying in the U.S. “We’ll probably be able to do a lot more [there] than in the United States until we have the data,” he said. “It’s one thing to test over a broad piece of land in a rural environment; it’s another to test it within an entire country. That’s something that is very important to me.”