Two companies pioneering the development of hybrid-electric eSTOL aircraft are joining forces, with Electra set to acquire Airflow. Announcing the unexpected deal during the Up.Partners industry meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas, on June 8, Electra said it will integrate the California start-up’s workforce, as well as combine letters of intent for their respective blown-lift designs, which it reports now cover almost 800 aircraft.
At face value, the Electra and Airflow aircraft are fairly similar in terms of projected short-takeoff and landing performance. The companies say that both product lines will continue to be developed by the combined venture, albeit perhaps for different applications.
Electra says its model will be able to carry up to nine passengers or 1,800 pounds of freight on sectors of up to around 500 miles, with the ability to operate from no more than 300 feet of runway. The company expects to be ready to start test flights with a two-seat technology demonstrator by the end of 2022.
Airflow is working on two versions of its proposed aircraft, both of which could be operated by a single pilot. One version would have eight to 10 passenger seats, a 2,000-pound payload, a 500-mile range, and the ability to land and take off from just 200 feet of runway. A smaller model would have a 500-pound payload and 250-mile range and be able to operate from a runway of only 150 feet.
Electra has not disclosed how much it has paid to acquire its fellow eSTOL start-up with funds made available through an investment it received from Lockheed Martin earlier this year. The merged venture will seek to attract other investors, but it has not yet been determined on what basis this will be done. “As we grow our investor base, we’re looking at lots of options out there,” said Electra founder and CEO John Langford, when asked whether an initial public offering might be in the cards. “One of our philosophies is that we are in this for the long haul. It’s not an 18-month payback; we want to be a mature and serious start-up.”
Both Langford and Airflow co-founder and CEO Marc Ausman have previously been involved with eVTOL aircraft projects—the former with Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences, and the latter with Airbus’s Vahana unit. Ausman will now serve as Electra’s chief product officer.
According to Langford, eSTOL aircraft have greater potential to transform air transportation, at least until battery technology advances exponentially. Electra claims its aircraft will deliver two and a half times the payload and 10 times the range of vertical takeoff rivals, with 70 percent lower operating costs.
“The experience [of testing battery-powered aircraft] convinced us that physics and the economics both strongly favor a solution that uses a wing throughout the full flight versus a rotor-borne vertical takeoff and transition,” Ausman said. “Distributed electric propulsion allows us to take off and land within two vehicle lengths to access parking-lot-sized spaces. This solution offers not only lower costs but a much more straightforward path to certification than vertical lift variants.”
Beyond the short-term plans to use hybrid-electric propulsion, the Electra team and their new colleagues from Airflow want to introduce carbon-free alternatives. Airflow’s engineers will be taking the lead to advance plans for hydrogen propulsion, based on their existing collaboration with fuel cell specialist PlugPower.
Between them, Electra and Airflow hold provisional sales agreements covering almost 800 of their respective eSTOL aircraft. Electra holds commitments from flight booking platforms Yugo, Flapper, and Flyv, as well as helicopter group Bristow, while Airflow’s 11 prospective customers include Tailwind and U.S. regional airline Ravn Alaska. Airflow has been working on plans for both amphibious and freight-carrying versions of its aircraft.
“There are dozens of aspiring entrants in the advanced air mobility market,” Langford said. “The acquisition of Airflow complements Electra’s team, our sales pipeline, and our technology portfolio, which will allow customers to select the best solution for their needs in a rapidly expanding market.
The two companies started discussing the deal just a few months ago and signed an agreement on June 2. Langford pointed to Textron’s recent acquisition of Pipistrel as evidence that electric aviation is moving into the industry’s mainstream. “That showed that this is the coming of age for electric airplane companies,” he concluded.