On a gin-clear December day, I’m sitting under the plexiglass bubble of a radically new kind of aircraft. It’s a little past noon at the Byron Airport in northern California; in the distance, a jagged line of wind turbines atop rolling hills marks the Altamont Pass, blades spinning lazily. Above me, a cloudless blue sky beckons.
The aircraft, called BlackFly, is unlike anything else on the planet. Built by a Palo Alto, Calif., startup called Opener, it’s an electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft with stubby wings fore and aft of the pilot, each with four motors and propellers. Visually, it’s as though an aerial speedster from a 1930s pulp sci-fi story has sprung from the page.
There are a couple of hundred startups designing or flying eVTOLs. But only a dozen or so are making tiny, technologically sophisticated machines whose primary purpose is to provide exhilarating but safe flying experiences to people after relatively minimal training. And in that group, Opener has jumped out to an early lead, having built dozens of aircraft at its facilities in Palo Alto and trained more than a score of people to fly them.
My own route to the cockpit of a BlackFly was relatively straightforward. I contacted the company’s CEO, Ken Karklin, in September 2022, pitched him on the idea of a story and video, and three months later, I was flying one of his aircraft.
Well, sort of flying it. My brief flight was so highly automated that I was more passenger than pilot. Nevertheless, I spent about a day and a half before the flight being trained to fly the machine manually, so that I could take control if anything went wrong. For this training, I wore a virtual-reality headset and sat in a chair that tilted and gyrated to simulate flying maneuvers. To “fly” this simulation, I manipulated a joystick that was identical to the one in the cockpit of a BlackFly. Opener’s chief operating officer, Kristina L. Menton, and engineer Wyatt Warner took turns patiently explaining the operations of the vehicle and giving me challenging tasks to complete, such as hovering and performing virtual landings in a vicious crosswind.