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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.