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The US Air Force successfully completed the first flight of an electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft with an Air Force pilot at the remote controls. The flights of the Kitty Hawk unmanned Heaviside electric aircraft were conducted last December as part of the Air Force’s AFWERX Agility Prime program, designed to find ways to encourage accelerated technical innovation in private companies and transition agile, affordable, and accelerated capabilities.
Kitty Hawk’s series of Heaviside aircraft are just several in a line of over 20 various eVTOL prototypes. In July 2021, the USAF granted Kitty Hawk airworthiness approval, enabling the company to take advantage of additional testing opportunities through a partnership with Agility Prime.
The Heaviside is Kitty Hawk’s current flying model. The company has worked through several iterations of this vehicle and is in the planning stages for the next. The aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight is approximately 880 pounds, allowing for a passenger up to about 176 pounds. Heaviside can travel at speeds of roughly 180 miles per hour, but most significantly, it remains quiet: only about 35 decibels at 1,500 feet above ground level, which is slightly louder than a whisper and about 100 times quieter than a helicopter.
Additionally, Heaviside has demonstrated 237 transitions between hover and forward flight, as well as a range of 100 miles on a single charge.
Heaviside takes advantage of several advanced technologies, such as Distributed Electric Propulsion (DEP), as this aircraft has eight fully electric propellers. The company has refined its use of automated flight capabilities through its Ground Control Station (GCS); engineers can upload a flight plan, telling the vehicle to fly to certain locations, and the Heaviside can perform the entire flight profile without human intervention.
However, a training feature of the Heaviside is the Buddy Box setup, which is a secondary remote controller wired to a primary controller. This system is intended for the use of an instructor and a student performing the duties of an external pilot in manual flight mode; the trainee handles and operates the aircraft while the instructor provides supervision and support.
The Heaviside and future models will not rely on an external pilot for flight operations, but utilizing this training method now affords the opportunity for more immediate and qualitative feedback on the aircraft, while also building out a training syllabus for the GCS operator, according to wpafb.af.mil.