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On Friday, June 12, Burlington, Vermont-based electric aviation startup Beta Technologies revealed its striking new aircraft, an all-white electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) beauty code-named Alia. The mechanism for the debut was a leisurely — if not downright balletic — helicopter airlift across Lake Champlain to its official testing ground, a former Air Force base in Plattsburgh, New York.
The roughly 30-minute operation saw the sleek, four-rotor airplane — one of the anticipated front-runners in the global race to launch a viable, fully electric VTOL aircraft — suspended 100 feet below a massive Sikorsky S-61N operated by Quebec-based lift specialist Helicarrier. The pair crossed over the northern end of Burlington, with streets along its route blocked off by police, then flew at a stately pace across the lake, usually just a few hundred feet above the surface of the water.
Helicarrier makes quick work of even the most challenging lifts, from refrigeration units in dicey urban environments to industrial machinery. If it’s under 10,000 pounds (4,535 kilograms) and can be attached to a long line, the company will move it for you. But Alia is a different kettle of fish. For starters, it’s a priceless prototype. Being forced to activate the emergency release and dump it in the lake if something went wrong — something Helicarrier has never had to do — would set the program back at least a year.
“For the most part, what we do typically encompasses things like water buckets on fires or salvage recovery of other crashed airplanes,” said pilot Aaron Lighter, who flew the mission with spotter Fred Carrier, the co-owner and president of the company. “It’s not very often we fly brand-new, experimental, multimillion-dollar projects like this. So, yeah, this is outside our scope a little bit. But at the end of the day it’s a piece of equipment on the end of a long line, and we are very capable of getting it there safely.”
Helicarrier’s load experts and Beta’s engineers collaborated closely in the weeks and months leading up to the airlift to ensure the aerodynamically fine-tuned Alia wouldn’t get a mind of her own in transit. That was unlikely, of course, given that Alia’s stall speed is 90 knots, and the airlift would be well below that at 40 knots, but still, the 6,000-lb. (2,720-kg) maximum take-off weight airplane was stripped down to just over 3,000 lb. (1,360 kg), so it had the potential to float a bit if a good gust of wind caught its wide 50-foot (15-meter) wings just so. Add in other aerodynamic qualities designed into the innovative bird, and a simple slow crawl across a lake on a sunny day could become anything but.
To prepare, engineers removed the four hover motors on the airplane’s two outriggers and replaced them with anchor hooks to which the ropes would be attached. Some batteries remained on board to ensure that the fly-by-wire control surfaces could be positioned to help spoil the airplane’s lift. Personnel also removed the pusher motor, which powers horizontal flight, and put tape over the window seams to ensure the Velcro-affixed canopy — something that makes it easily accessible during testing — would stay in place. Finally, the teams ensured the aircraft had a slight, three-degree nose-down attitude when suspended, and they installed a drag chute in the rear of the aircraft to help it remain stable in the wind, allowing it to weathervane as necessary without spinning out of control.