The ALIA aircraft at Duke Field, Fla.

The ALIA aircraft at Duke Field, Fla. Courtesy BETA

USAF tried an electric plane. Now it wants to buy

A three-month test of the battery-powered ALIA has the service looking to move ahead.

The U.S. Air Force wants to buy battery-powered planes after it deployed BETA Technologies’ ALIA aircraft to one of the service’s bases.

A final decision on when and how many of the electric conventional takeoff and landing planes the service will buy is a “rolling process,” but the service is “definitely on an acquisition path to get these into the inventory,” said Andrew Lau, AFWERX’s Agility Prime program manager. The program was launched in 2020 to propel electric aviation development.

The Defense Department, the world’s largest industrial producer of greenhouse gases, sees electric aircraft as a way to ease both maintenance and operational logistics in the Pacific.

“I think that the reduced reliance on fossil fuels and jet fuel in some of the locations might be very valuable [and] the ability to operate a reduced fuel footprint because the supply chain, just to get the fuel into some of these remote locations can be quite challenging,” Lau said in a Monday interview.

The ALIA aircraft recently finished a three-month deployment to Duke Field at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, where it flew over 55 missions, including cargo and logistics missions and a simulated casualty evacuation, said Chris Caputo, a BETA test pilot. The electric plane also completed a simulated “maintenance recovery team” mission and picked up parts for an F-35. 

“When you're in a theater or you’re island hopping, things like that, you're limited by the number of parts that can be moved around, the number of aircraft that are in the field to support the fighters, for example, so being able to put them out there supporting the F-35s was a huge win for us,” Lau said.

As the service mulls the purchase, BETA, a Vermont-based startup, has opened a new production facility in Burlington that will be able to pump out 300 electric aircraft a year when it hits full-scale production, Caputo said.

There is “absolutely” enough demand for 300 a year between commercial and defense customers, Caputo said, and “our defense customers could quickly ramp and outpace our commercial customers in the future.” 

But before the program can truly transition away from research and development to procurement, Caputo said one of the services has to say, “Hey, I see a bona fide requirement for this capability…To me, what I think it's going to take is bold and courageous leadership to say, I see the vision for the electrification of aviation, and the applicability of this cargo logistics, medical support aircraft that can do it very cheaply, rendering the operational costs next to nothing.” 

The company has also invested in a battery test facility north of Burlington to develop new technology to build into future battery packs, Caputo said, and give customers upgraded batteries every couple of years to improve performance. 

“I think this is kind of a mind-bender from the aircraft and the assets that they currently use that continue to degrade year after year and break down and become more expensive to maintain,” Caputo said.

The ALIA aircraft has flown more than 380 miles on a single charge and takes about an hour to recharge. BETA installed the Defense Department's first fast charger at Duke Field, and has mobile chargers to use in locations without charging infrastructure. 

“We have other programs that we are currently working on to hybridize the aircraft for extended range missions and military applications in the INDOPACOM theater, and we'd have charging solutions both permanent and modular in the Pacific Theater available to accomplish the various missions, whether it's our Marine [Corps] partner or the U.S. Air Force or even the Army in the future,” Caputo said. 

BETA is working on building out a network of chargers in the U.S. and has activated 16 stations “from Vermont to Arkansas.” It also has 58 more sites in the permitting or construction phase, according to the company.

The Air Force has been investing in several electric aviation companies in addition to BETA, including Joby Aviation and Archer Aviation, as the Pentagon looks for different mission sets for electric aircraft.