WASHINGTON — The Air Force is on track to buy and start fielding its first electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft that could carry passengers or cargo under the Agility Prime program in 2023.
This year, the service is bringing these “flying cars” to more exercises and demonstrations as it gets airmen — and the public — used to the concept.
The Air Force’s proposed fiscal 2023 budget asked for $3.6 million in Agility Prime’s first procurement funds, which it would use to buy five of the eVTOL aircraft.
Lt. Col. John Tekell, who runs the Agility Prime program for AFWERX, said that the initial procurement will come next year, with more selections will likely follow.
“Just because we select a company for the ‘23 procurement funds does not mean three other companies don’t meet a different mission set and a different capability that we use our future procurement funds on,” he said in a June 10 interview.
The Air Force is looking at 66 potential uses for Agility Prime, including the possibility of using it to infiltrate and exfiltrate special operations troops and rescuing downed aviators or other personnel in enemy territory where conditions might be too dangerous to send in a traditional helicopter.
Tekell said Agility Prime’s first real-world uses will likely be by supporting test and training ranges, as well as other cargo transportation tasks, though it could eventually end up playing a role in in a major war.
The Air Force is particularly interested in how Agility Prime could help the service rapidly set up bases in a conflict zone as part of its Agile Combat Employment concept — especially if facilities have been seriously damaged in an attack and need to be quickly re-established nearby, he said.
“Moving parts in a base around quickly, sometimes it might require transformative vertical lift because those airfields that need to be moved may be significantly damaged,” Tekell said. They “may not have runways anymore. They may not have roads anymore.”
In the past, the Air Force might have had to resort to traditional helicopters or tilt-rotor aircraft to move equipment or supplies around when roads or other infrastructure were unusable. Tekell said Agility Prime’s electric vertical takeoff and landing capability can get that job done in a simpler, much more fuel-efficient way.
And it would be much cheaper than a traditional helicopter, “orders of magnitude less … in both procurement and operations and maintenance,” he said.
It remains to be seen what the final price tags for Agility Prime might be and the Air Force is still discussing procurement costs with firms, but Tekell said it could range anywhere from the low hundreds of thousands of dollars to up to $5 million apiece. The Air Force now has contracts with 14 companies to produce full scale aircraft that could ultimately be used for Agility Prime, Tekell said.
Some of those companies contracted with this program include Lift Aircraft of Austin, Texas, and Beta Technologies of Burlington, Vermont. In March, two Air Force pilots became the first airmen to fly an electric aircraft with military airworthiness when they took Beta’s ALIA aircraft for a spin.
As the Air Force figures out how to spend those initial procurement funds, Tekell said it will consider any company that shows it can reach the necessary technical and manufacturing milestones, and look at whether those aircraft’s capabilities would be useful for the variety of mission sets the service could need.
He said it will “definitely not be a single company” that gets one Agility Prime contract, because the Air Force wants to foster the growth of the eVTOL industry and supply chain in the U.S. The Air Force will also look at how these Agility Prime aircraft would integrate with existing fleets.
“This isn’t something we’re going to replace legacy assets with,” Tekell said. “This is something you use in conjunction with legacy assets to make your operations significantly more efficient.”
The Air Force’s tests of Agility Prime last year, including a demonstration last March that showed Lift Aircraft’s Hexa platform could fit and be safely transported in a military cargo plane, were successful, Tekell said.
And this year, Tekell said he wants to get Agility Prime’s aircraft out in the public so more airmen can see it in action and prove they’re capable and safe. This will be an important step towards getting Agility Prime viewed as an accepted, everyday part of the Air Force’s fleet, he said.
The public rollout will include attending the air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, next month, as well as live demonstrations and participations in exercises. Last month, Lift’s Hexa aircraft made an appearance at the Emerald Warrior exercise for special operations at Hurlburt Field, Florida, and more demonstrations could come at the Army’s Project Convergence and the Air Force’s Black Flag, Red Flag and Orange Flag exercizes.
This will become easier in the near future, he said, as companies expand their manufacturing lines and build more eVTOL aircraft that the Air Force could use for demonstrations.
Agility Prime is not yet a program of record, and in an unusual move, it could end up getting fielded without hitting that step. The program is partnered with Air Force Materiel Command’s mobility program executive office, Tekell said, and Agility Prime can procure and maintain aircraft with its current structure and partnerships without reaching program of record status.
The Air Force wants Agility Prime to not only develop innovative electric aircraft capabilities, it wants to streamline the acquisition process as well. Technology evolves more quickly in electric aviation, Tekell said, and procurement should as well. Had the program gone through the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System acquisition process, he said, it would have taken years longer, and Agility Prime’s technology would have already been out of date and less useful by the time it got fielded.
Tekell said it’s hard to describe how out of the ordinary skipping the program of record step would be.
“We don’t know, because there are no other programs like this,” he said.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.