Going Direct: The Latest E-Plane’s Unsettling Launch

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When you think leaders in aviation technology coverage you normally think “CNN,” right? Nope, neither do I. So it might have been a bit of a surprise to some of us when Kitty Hawk, the company that’s making those polycopter ultralight watercraft machines, gave the exclusive first flight of its single-seater “Flyer” to CNN, and not just CNN but a reporter who has no aviation experience. I get it. The message they want to send is that this product isn’t for pilots. It’s for anyone. Okay…

If you’re asking how someone who’s not a pilot can go flying in a single-seat aircraft, you’ve got a good question. The Flyer (admission: it’s hard for me to call it that even in my head) is not an aircraft at all. It’s an Aerial Recreational Vehicle (ARV), a type of thing that’s regulated by FAR Part 103. That’s right. It’s an ultralight. Ultralights got their start in the 1970s, and by 1980 were so popular that the FAA figured it had to do something and so drafted and approved Part 103, which defined ultralights and attempted to make them so light and so slow that they’d present limited risk to their occupants. Short term, it was a huge success and an even huger disaster. Companies were cranking out hundreds of hang gliders a year, and in some cases, hundreds a month. The downside was there were in equally short order hundreds of crashes, untold numbers of deaths and injuries galore. The message that ultralight companies wanted to send was that their products weren’t for pilots. They were for everyone. The sad truth is, not everyone can or should be flying. That doesn’t mean that aviation isn’t for large number of people—I think that it is. It’s just not for everyone who walks in off the street and decides that “that looks like fun” and puts their money down.

Let me get this right there and say this: The aviation press is the enemy of aviation marketers who want to make a really big splash and in the process avoid the inherent messiness of aviation reality. I’ve gotten used to that over the years, and I long ago lost track of how many questions I’ve asked of PR types to be greeted by a glib sound bite, outright antagonism or stony silence. Admittedly, these folks are often of one or two descriptions, non-pilots or pilots coming from the outside of the aviation industry who’ve decided that they will transform the aviation world.

We’ve seen this with companies over the ages, and almost none of them are particularly well known, because they typically don’t last long—physics and human nature are always their undoing.

I don’t know for sure which one Kitty Hawk is, clueless marketer or clued in marketer, but early results are not encouraging. The website has almost no technical information about the aircraft (I’ve got an email out to them requesting details, but they have not had a chance to respond yet.) , and their exclusive first flight to CNN was disappointing.

The craft was flown by a CNN reporter who, according to the story, had about an hour of training before the flight, and the flight itself was over water and never went higher than 10 feet AGL (AWL?) or faster than 6 mph. The craft itself looked less than stable, as it went through constant small corrections in pitch and roll.

The thing that the Flyer has going for it is this: it really does do the flying for you. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. It’s bad for me, because I want to do the flying, and it’s good for Kitty Hawk because we don’t want everyone to do the flying.

The flight itself was successful, in that nobody got hurt and nobody got wet. The Flyer is supposed to have a battery endurance of 20 minutes, a limit that I’m certain is driven by the Part 103 restriction that powered ultralights weigh no more than 254 pounds, though the FAA can let you boost that weight limit a little if it has amphibious gear. The Flyer took off from and landed on a dock. Is it amphibious? Seems an important detail to gloss over. And what happens if the drive system goes kaput? Will it autorotate? Sure doesn’t look like it to me. For now, maybe the self-imposed 10-foot ceiling is their safety net. Still, I wouldn’t sign up for that dunking.

Also of interest was Kitty Hawk referring to the Flyer as a “Flying Car.” In what way is it a car? It has no way of propelling itself forward on the land. Perhaps by “flying car” they mean a “car replacement that flies?” They say the project will lead to a “world free from traffic.” Really? We can forgive enthusiasm in marketing, but “a world free from traffic” is just bad teenage fantasy.

Lastly, and my griping on this subject will be done for a bit, the name really bugs me. I get that the company, which was founded by Google’s Larry Page, is a borrowing from the history of aviation by using every Wright Brothers icon they can come up with that their audience might relate to. But please. The Wrights were brothers who were doing something that nobody had ever done before, and their hardscrabble start up was built not with big Silicon Valley dollars but with genius, guts and determination. The appropriation of the legend of the Wrights seems gratuitous, and let me remind of one more thing. The Wrights spent zero minutes and zero dollars on branding and self-congratulations and a lifetime on innovation.

And before anyone comes down on me for raining on Kitty Hawk’s aerial parade, let me say that I applaud what the company is doing. But it’s critical for all of us in aviation to be straight with our audience, pilots and non-pilots, about risk. FAQ number one for this or any aircraft program should be, “Can I get hurt or killed doing this?” And the answer will always be “yes.” Then it’s great to continue on telling the audience how your particular technology will limit that risk. That’s a great place to bring up innovation.

10 thoughts on “Going Direct: The Latest E-Plane’s Unsettling Launch

  1. No thank you. The FAA should immediately limit these things to 10 feet AGL-Period, enforced by a governor (if it flies itself, it can govern itself–unlike the most untrained humans.
    On a related matter (sort of) last week in Class D airspace around KUAO, at 2000′ a GA aircraft suffered a DRONE STRIKE, badly denting the wing.

    The next day, going for a bike ride, as I rolled down my inclined driveway and turned right down the street I almost hit a hovering drone, stationary smack dab in front of me in the middle of the right hand lane and just 18 inched above my face.

    There is big trouble ahead with these airborne “toys”

  2. It sounds amazing. It looks cool. I love the concept.

    Anyone who is not impressed that a non-flyer was able to solo it, after an hour’s training, doesn’t know much about aviation realities.

  3. “World free from traffic” indicates 95% crashing. More realistic is airspace resembling that around Africanized bee hives.

  4. Dear Robert Goyer, I have always read with attention what you write and have developed a high opinion of the worth of your pronouncements on aviation matters. I think however that your column on the Kitty Hawk Flyer is long on irritation and short on facts. You may be absolutely right on what you suspect and suggest about this equipment/aircraft, but there is very little in the story on which to form/base an opinion. it would have been better to say that until Plane & Pilot has a chance to fly this craft, it is not prepared to review it.

  5. That is a very cool looking…vehicle? I wish the media (not P&P) would stop calling it a flying car because it isn’t one. It’s little more than a manned drone.

    The flight by the reporter could have ended up very badly and was conducted very irresponsibly. Operating the flight over water is giving them a very false sense of security.

    Mr. Goyer touched on it, but the mindset of “lack of failure equals success” is a very questionable measure of safety.

  6. Great commentary, Robert. CNN is a natural platform for this unabashedly sensational commercial grandstanding based on their notoriety for routinely filling the airwaves with skewed reality information (some would call it “spin” or “fake” news). That fact notwithstanding and with homage to The Great P. T. Barnum, fresh generations of naive blank slates are born every minute.

  7. Meh, another flash in the pan. I well remember the beginnings of Part 103. I was a Hang Glider pilot then and was one of the ones who lobbied for the new rule. I could not foresee the deleterious effects it would have. Now I would not touch a hang glider or ultralight for anything.

  8. You had me laughing too tears with these companies coring those journalists. I am one too and I’ve been covering the world of EVs for a decade. The last few years, I noticed those e-startups that once loved us for our reporting are now only interested in mainstream media.

    And the uninformed questions these people ask are mindnumbing. To think they get paid much more than I do and spread misinformation. It’s sad…

  9. This is excellent writing. Well done. A reality check like this was much needed. Please write more articles like this. It took 4 years and 10’s of millions of dollars spent (some articles say $100 million +) by Kitty Hawk to make the flyer and it can only fly for 12-20 minutes with a small pilot at a maximum of 20 mph. I am a huge aviation enthusiast but Kitty Hawk is just…. uninspiring and derivitive.

    Why are companies not working on rotor taper optimization like Paul Lippse did or perhaps using flywheels instead of batteries?

    Thank you for writing this article. More please.

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