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One of the world’s best funded and most secretive electric powered aircraft appeared in public for the first time on July 7, when Joby Aviation’s newest eVTOL was spotted flying southbound along the Pacific coast of Monterey Bay, California, suspended from the cargo hook of a HeliStream Bell 205A-1 utility helicopter.
A media query to Joby Aviation’s public relations department confirmed the airlift of the prototype, but didn’t provide much information regarding the aircraft’s ultimate destination.
“This week, Joby transported its prototype aircraft from Santa Cruz to an approved location where we can expand the flight test program. In supporting the development of these aircraft, Joby moves equipment and prototype aircraft between testing sites. The purpose of the test program is to continue development of the Joby aircraft — a very exciting milestone for the air taxi market,” was all that Joby said in a written statement.
However, with a little detective work, eVTOL.com believes it has solved the mystery of where Joby’s prototype is now hiding out.
First, some background
In 2009, Joby Aviation became one of the first companies in the world to embark on the development of an eVTOL.
Joby founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt discussed the company’s original Monarch Personal Air Vehicle (PAV) at the CAFE Foundation’s fifth annual Electric Aircraft Symposium in Santa Rosa, California, in April 2011. (“Joby” was Bevirt’s childhood nickname).
Joby engineers shared details of the two-seat S2 eVTOL at the Vertical Flight Society’s first annual Electric VTOL Symposium in 2014, and the four-seat S4 at the symposium in 2015. However, the company then entered a long period of “radio silence” during which no further details were revealed, even as Joby rapidly recruited almost 400 engineers and technologists.
In February 2018, Bloomberg Businessweek published the story, “Air-taxi startup has a working prototype and a fresh $100 million,” which reported on the Generation 1 eVTOL flight testing, saying that Joby’s “private airfield is nestled in a valley on the Northern California coast between Monterey and Santa Barbara, and it’s remote by design.”
The Bloomberg reporters saw the aircraft make a 15-minute flight over a 15-mile loop.
Not until Jan. 15, 2020, were the first images of the production version of Joby Aviation’s Generation 2 all-electric, five-seat eVTOL revealed. At the same time, Joby announced $590 million in Series C financing, bringing the company’s total funding, including previous rounds, to $720 million.
More recently, Joby revealed that it had made more than 700 test flights using subscale models starting in 2015, and more than 200 test flights with the full-scale Generation 1 engineering prototype/technology demonstrator starting in 2017. “Active flight testing” of the full-scale, Generation 2 passenger-capable certification prototype began in 2019.
Throughout this period, Joby Aviation has been headquartered in a small facility in the community of Bonny Doon in the mountains about 10 miles northwest of Santa Cruz — about 1,400 feet above scenic coastal Highway 1.
It’s not the place you would expect to find a world-leading aerospace company, but it’s near where Bevirt grew up and began his career as serial entrepreneur, with companies including Velocity11, which made DNA sequencing robots; Joby, which made photography equipment; and Joby Energy, which developed giant kites to fly into upper-atmosphere winds and generate high-output electricity.
The helicopter ‘ferry’ flight
On July 6, the flight tracking application FlightAware revealed that HeliStream’s Bell 205A-1, N229HT, took off from Watsonville Airport at 4:53 p.m. PDT and made an 11-minute flight to a location near Bonny Doon.
Photos released in January 2020 show the Generation 2 eVTOL in front of a small white hangar next to a hill. A close examination of aerial photos using Google Maps reveals that Joby’s hangar and heliport are very close to its headquarters at the bottom of the 234-acre Bonny Doon Limestone and Shale Quarry that closed in 2009.
Sixty years ago, the original Enstrom helicopter was ground tested in a quarry in Iron Mountain, Michigan, which was ideal for keeping a new noisy helicopter hidden from public view.
History is repeating itself, but the quarry at Bonny Doon is not ideal for testing once the aircraft transitions to high-speed forward flight and requires a larger test range to stream back telemetry data to engineers on the ground.
On July 7, FlightAware tracked the Bell 205A-1 taking off from Bonny Doon at 10:08 a.m. PDT with the Joby Generation 2 below, and flying southeast at 64 to 80 knots for the next 1 hour and 16 minutes on a track paralleling the coast roughly halfway between scenic Highway 1 and inland Highway 101.
The helicopter and its cargo crossed a mountain ridge at 3,500 feet southwest of King City, California, but the ADS-B data flow from the helicopter stopped at 11:24 a.m., when the aircraft was flying at 76 knots at 2,500 feet above sea level within the restricted airspace of U.S. Army Garrison Fort Hunter Liggett in southern Monterey County.
The next time FlightAware tracked the Bell was at 1:41 p.m., when the aircraft appeared to be climbing out of the Twin Valley Creek area, where the military range map and aerial photos showed a helicopter landing zone with three paved helipads on the south side of Sam Jones Road.
Further evidence that this is the location of Joby’s secret flight test facility appeared in a story by Mark Harris published in the Manchester Guardian in July 2018, which revealed that Joby Aviation had received a $970,000 contract under the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx).
The Guardian reproduced a page from Joby’s early application for an experimental airworthiness certificate which showed the location of two test ranges. One was located entirely in Class E and G airspace over the land and sea to the west of Bonny Doon, and a secondary operating area within the R-2513 restricted airspace at Fort Hunter Liggett.
The Joby Generation 2 eVTOL likely did ground runs and hovers at Bonny Doon, but the first transition to forward flight will probably take place sometime in the coming months within the military range.
The new aircraft is pushing the technological envelope and features a unified flight control; a 200-mph (480-km/h) cruise speed, a 150-mile (240-km) range and very low noise signature.
Other eVTOL test ranges
The eVTOL industry, especially in North America, has conducted most of its test flight activity far from public view. This includes small general aviation airports that don’t receive a lot of outside visitors, the private estates of eVTOL investors, leased ranches, and locations within military airports and ranges.
One early challenge for regulators is that most eVTOL prototypes are flown unmanned until the systems have matured.
Zee.Aero, which became Kitty Hawk, conducted most of its early eVTOL test flights at Hollister Airport, southeast of San Jose, California. This is now where Kitty Hawk spinoff Wisk regularly test flies the fifth-generation Cora eVTOL aircraft in parallel with flight tests from Tekapo Aerodrome on the South Island in New Zealand.
The first-generation Kitty Hawk Flyer was test flown manned and unmanned over lakes near the San Francisco Bay area, and a large test facility was established on the shore of Lake Las Vegas, Nevada, to allow dozens of people to fly the second-generation Flyer, before the Flyer program was cancelled in June of this year.
Kitty Hawk’s Heaviside eVTOL is being flight tested southeast of Hollister near Tres Pinos in San Benito County, and this is where the prototype crashed on Oct. 17, 2019.
The first- and second-generation Opener BlackFly eVTOL aircraft were hovered near Toronto in Warkworth and Cobourg, Ontario, respectively before the company relocated to Silicon Valley in 2014. While the first manned flights of the BlackFly V2 took place in March 2018 in California, Opener’s busiest flight test site is on a farm in a small town in northern Saskatchewan, Canada.
Airbus A3 conducted all of its flight testing of the Vahana eVTOL at the UAS test range at Pendleton Airport, Oregon, in 2018 and 2019. Beta Technologies is using the Plattsburgh International Airport in upstate New York for flight testing, and Luminati Aerospace has conducted ground tests of its eVTOL aircraft at the New York UAS Test Site at Griffiss International Airport in Rome, New York.
In August 2019, Elroy Air first flew its large cargo drone at Camp Roberts, a California National Guard post in central California, which is southeast of Fort Hunter Liggett.
A couple other U.S. eVTOL aircraft developers have flight tested their aircraft at Palmdale Regional Airport in the Mojave Desert of California, including Toyota Motors, which tested a previously secret cargo drone there earlier this year.
Palmdale is also the site of the U.S. Air Force’s classified aircraft manufacturing Plant 41, where Lockheed’s famed “Skunk Works” developed the U-2, SR-71 Blackbird and F-117 Nighthawk, and where Northrop Grumman built the B-2 and is now assembling the B-21 Raider heavy bomber.