On a clear December afternoon, I am sitting under the plexiglass canopy of a brand new type of aircraft. At Byron Airport in northern California just past noon; in the distance, a jagged line of wind turbines on the hilltops marks Altamont Pass, the blades spinning lazily. A cloudless blue sky beckons above me.
The plane called BlackFly is unlike anything else on the planet. Built in Palo Alto, California by a startup called Opener, it is an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft with short wings in front and behind the pilot, each with four engines and propellers. Visually, it looks like the air speedster from a 1930s sci-fi story sprang from the page.
There are a couple of hundred startups developing or launching eVTOL. But only a dozen or so make tiny, technologically sophisticated machines whose main purpose is to provide thrilling yet safe flights for humans with relatively minimal training. And in this group, Opener immediately took the lead, building dozens of aircraft at its facilities in Palo Alto and training more than two dozen people to fly them.
My own route to the BlackFly cockpit was relatively easy. I contacted the company’s CEO, Ken Karklin, in September 2022, pitched the story idea and video to him, and flew one of his planes three months later.
Well, it kind of flew. My short flight was so automated that I was more of a passenger than a pilot. However, I spent about a day and a half before flying learning how to operate the machine manually so that I could take control if something went wrong. For this training, I put on a virtual reality headset and sat in a chair that tilted and rotated to mimic flight maneuvers. To “control” this simulation, I manipulated a joystick identical to the one in the BlackFly’s cockpit. Opener COO Christina L. Menton and engineer Wyatt Warner took turns patiently explaining to me how the machine worked and giving me tough challenges like hovering and virtual landings in strong crosswinds.
The BlackFly is fully controlled by this joystick which is equipped with a trigger as well as a thumb switch. To take off, I pull the trigger while pushing the switch forward. The machine shoots into the air with the sound of a million bees, and with a surge of dizzying delight, I climb up.
Much more than a plane or helicopter, BlackFly taps into the archetypal human urge to fly, as represented by flying carpets, flying cars in The Jetsons, and even mountain banshees in the movie Avatar. I have had several unusual experiences flying in airplanes, including flying in NASA’s Weightless Vomiting Comet and flying in the BlackFly was definitely the most thrilling and delightful. Looking at the Altamont Pass from a height of about 60 meters, I experienced a feeling of joyful liberation – from earthly gravity and earthly hardships.
BlackFly is also a likely harbinger of things to come. Most of the startups developing eVTOLs are building vehicles designed to carry multiple passengers at commercial miles of less than 50 kilometers. Although they are initially planned to be piloted, most companies are looking forward to the day when flights will be fully automated. Thus, specialized aircraft such as the BlackFly, designed to be registered and operated as “ultralight” aircraft under aviation regulations, can provide mountains of invaluable data on fully automated flight and perhaps even help introduce people to the idea of pilotless flight. Indeed, during my flight, dozens of sensors collected gigabytes of data to add to the large reservoir that Opener had already collected during many hundreds of test flights.
As of late February 2023, Opener has yet to announce a retail price or official commercial release date for the aircraft, which has been in development and testing for over a decade. I will follow the further news of the company. Long after my flight ended, I still enjoyed the experience and hoped for another one.
Special thanks to Steve Esker of IEEE.tv for filming, editing and producing this video.