US Air Force burns more money on electric flying taxis

Waiting on that thumbs up from the FAA

The US Air Force is dipping its toe into electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft by trialing a short-hop air taxi that has yet to get FAA certification to fly. 

Electric aviation biz Archer said on Monday it signed a $142 million (£110m) deal with the USAF for the purchase of six of Archer's Midnight eVTOL aircraft. These aren't combat aircraft, more the Air Force equivalent of a Tesla. 

According to Archer, the USAF plans to use Midnight "across a wide range of mission profiles, from personnel transport and logistics support to rescue operations and more."

"eVTOL aircraft represent the cusp of the third revolution in aerospace, and these aircraft and their descendants will drive advances in capabilities and efficiency," said Colonel Tom Meagher of the USAF's AFWERX program, which aims to bring ideas and designs from small biz and startups into the military.

Archer partnered with the Department of Defense in 2021, and has worked with AFWERX on several projects, the manufacturer said. 


The Archer Midnight eVTOL aircraft ... Click to enlarge

The Midnight, Archer's production aircraft, was launched in late 2022. Midnight is designed to carry a pilot and up to four passengers with an expected payload of over 1,000 pounds (454kg). Archer claims the 12-rotor aircraft will be able to perform back-to-back 20-mile trips with a recharge time of approximately 10 minutes between journeys. 

Archer describes the Midnight as being able to cruise at 2,000 feet, and claims it's almost 1,000 times quieter than a helicopter. The vehicle's reported max range is 100 miles (161km), and it can fly up to 150 miles per hour (241kph). 

The biz isn't the only company working to commercialize an eVTOL design, nor is it even the only company that has been working with AFWERX's Agility Prime program to clear such a craft for government use. 

Joby Aviation, which has been collaborating with the USAF for several years, said in 2022 that it had doubled the size of its contract to participate in Agility Prime, including with other US military branches. Joby was also the first eVTOL company to gain military airworthiness approval.

Functionally, Joby and Archer's eVTOLs are similar - both offer max speeds (200mph and 150mph, respectively) comparable to military helicopters, and a four-person passenger capacity.

But Joby's six-rotor production craft has already been granted a limited flight license by the Federal Aviation Administration, clearing the way for flight tests before the company delivers its production aircraft to the Air Force in 2024. Joby's purchase order from the USAF was for nine of its aircraft.

It's not immediately clear what sort of flight clearance, if any, the Archer Midnight has received from the FAA at this point. Archer's test craft was granted a special airworthiness certificate to conduct hover tests in 2021, but that's the last specific update the company mentions on its website. Otherwise, according to its certification status page, Archer is "working to finalize our Means of Compliance with the FAA."

We reached out to Archer to learn more about its status with the FAA and its timeline for delivery of its aircraft to the USAF, and haven't heard back.

Regardless, neither Joby nor Archer have received an actual FAA certification to fly their crafts beyond limited tests. The US government itself is still defining its rules around eVTOLs, and the DoD may simply see Archer as another foot in the door of a new type of aviation.

"Our contracts with Archer Aviation provide the [DoD] and [USAF] the opportunity to play a role in ensuring from the onset, and as the technology evolves, that we unlock the many benefits these aircraft have to offer the US military,” Colonel Meagher noted. ®

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