Home » You Can Finally Buy Your Own Flying Pod And Pilot It Without A License, But There Are Caveats

You Can Finally Buy Your Own Flying Pod And Pilot It Without A License, But There Are Caveats

Helix Vtol Ts
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The future you were promised by science fiction is here! You can finally buy your own little electric flying pod to whisk you off to your next destination. Well, sort of. The Pivotal Helix is one of the first electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft (eVTOL) that you can buy right now in America, and you don’t even need a pilot license to fly it. In theory, it’s aviation for everyone! But you should know that there’s a list of caveats, and they start with the fact that you basically can’t operate this anywhere but over rural America. Let’s dig in.

I’ve been following the story of the little Helix since my time over at the old site. There are countless startups out there all vying to create the best ultralight eVTOL. Many of these companies boast about changing the way we travel and opening the skies to everyone. But they’re selling products that are legally of limited practicality. Add six-figure price tags and these companies have come at odds with their missions. On the other hand, the folks of Pivotal, née Opener, have largely avoided trying to write checks the company’s product can’t cash. In fact, Pivotal comes right out and says that its aircraft is not a flying car, which is refreshing.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Now, you can buy Pivotal’s debut flying vehicle and it looks like a load of fun. Before you start checking your accounts, we should go over why the Helix, as well as every single ultralight eVTOL in development, are fun vehicles, but won’t be your commuter vehicle.

Personalize Your Helix With A Custom Vinyl Wrap.

Pivotal

If the Helix eVTOL looks familiar, it’s because just last year the aircraft was called the BlackFly and Pivotal was named Opener Aero. The rebrand comes as the company’s debut aircraft enters its new generation, which brought some improvements that we’ll talk about later.

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Development of Pivotal’s aircraft has been over a decade in the making. Back in August 2009, Canadian engineer Marcus Leng began the first stages of creating a fixed-wing all-electric VTOL aircraft. In October 2011, Leng took his first flight in his creation, the Rebel SkyKar, in Warkworth, Ontario, Canada. Flying on the success of his concept eVTOL, Leng founded his company in Canada. Then, in 2014, he rebranded the company as Opener Aero and moved most of its operations to Silicon Valley. Having his company in that location was strategic as he wanted access to the money that seemingly falls from the sky out there in addition to local engineering talent.

First Flight.89828296 1n5nfn

This seemed to do the trick, as development sped up while Opener Aero found investors such as Google co-founder Larry Page. The eVTOL, renamed the BlackFly, made a test flight in August 2014. The BlackFly would undergo flight testing while fully loaded at 200 pounds in 2015 before being refined into the BlackFly V2 in 2016. That eVTOL would see even more loaded flight testing through 2016 and 2017, including 10,000 miles of flying at its maximum payload of 200 pounds.

For many people, their first look at the Opener BlackFly happened in 2018, when the BlackFly made its first-ever manned flight. Later that year, the BlackFly dazzled crowds at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh when it took off and hovered around the flightline. That’s when it caught my attention.

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Where the original Rebel SkyKar weighed 237 pounds empty and could only accomodate pilots under six feet tall weighing 160 pounds or less, the BlackFly was a more robust 343 pounds and could carry pilots over six feet tall and weighing up to 200 pounds. Opener also produced other specs, including 25 to 30 miles of range with an 8 kWh battery, a 62 mph cruising speed, a 1,200-foot operating ceiling, and a 500-foot-per-minute climb rate. Safety came in the form of triple redundancies, including the ability to keep flying even if one of the eight props stops operating. In a very worst-case scenario, the BlackFly even had a ballistic parachute system. The BlackFly also had a sophisticated flight system that simplified controls and in the event of an issue with the pilot, the eVTOL could even fly itself back to where it originally took off.

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In 2018, Opener Aero said you’d get all of this wrapped up in a body of epoxy-impregnated carbon fiber. And since it complied with Federal Aviation Regulation Part 103, Ultralight Vehicles, you didn’t need a pilot license to fly one. The company said it was targeting sales that year with the first 25 units going for roughly the price of a luxury SUV.

It would take until 2023 for Opener to deliver its first BlackFly to a customer. By that time, the Opener team added tens of thousands of miles of flight testing to the BlackFly and refined it further. A few months after the first BlackFly delivery and first customer flight, Opener rebranded to Pivotal and the eVTOL became the Helix. So, what’s new with the eVTOL that Pivotal wants you to spend $190,000 on?

The Pivotal Helix

Helix Canopy Open

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At its core, the Helix isn’t much different than the BlackFly that came before it. It’s a tilt eVTOL with tandem wings and eight motors. It seats just a single person and is designed to land just about anywhere, including water. However, Helix says water landings are limited to emergencies only. The body is still a carbon fiber composite, though its weight has increased to 348 pounds. The pilot weight limit has also increased by 20 pounds to 220 pounds.

The motors got an upgrade before the name change. During its development cycle, the BlackFly had eight motors producing 112 pounds of thrust each. Now, the thrust output is around 130 pounds for each motor. Each motor weighs about 4 pounds and there are two lithium batteries behind each motor, totaling 8 kWh of storage. These batteries are said to charge from 20 percent to 100 percent in 4.5 hours on a Level 1 charger and in 75 minutes on Level 2. Range, which includes a 20 percent reserve, is noted to be “20+ miles.”

Screenshot (774)

In addition to the Helix’s ability to keep flying after motor failures, the motors can also feed off of another motor’s batteries if they need to. Today, Pivotal advertises a total static thrust of 960 pounds from all eight motors. As I observed at 2022’s EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, the eVTOL flies by lifting itself off of the ground and then tilting to enter cruise. It does this with help from its motors, that way it doesn’t need tilting props or variable wings, cutting down potential points of failure.

Mercedes Streeter

Like the BlackFly, the Helix cruises at 63 mph, climbs 500 feet per minute and descends 500 feet per minute. Control is through a fly-by-wire system featuring sidesticks and electrical controls. In terms of safety, the Helix retains triple-redundant systems, an ADS-B transponder, beacon lights, a landing camera, and a ballistic parachute. The Helix also gets 4 split elevon pairs for additional redundancy. Pivotal also says that the Helix can land and take off with two dead motors if it needs to.

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All of these features are driven by a software system designed to work in the background. The Helix can even take off and land by itself. In the cabin, there’s a panel feeding you flight data and navigation. Your flight should be pretty quiet, too. Pivotal says the Helix is quieter than an electric car. After seeing one fly in person, I can say the company is telling the truth. The Helix is so quiet that you can barely hear it buzzing by.

Helix Beach Transport

When you’re done flying your Helix, the eVTOL disassembles and fits into a 16-foot trailer. Amusingly, the assembly process takes 30 minutes, or longer than you’ll be able to fly it.

In addition to its quiet operation, I also like Pivotal’s attention to safety. Sure, you can fly the Helix without a license, but Pivotal requires every buyer to undergo a training course, which includes ground school, aircraft handling, flight training, sim practice, and more. So long as Pivotal’s course is close to the instruction you’d get from a certified flight instructor, you should come out of it knowing the basics of flight.

The Caveats

Helix Cruise Mode

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Alright, so the Helix is pretty cool. I’ve gotten to see the eVTOL take to the skies twice and it’s just as cool as videos make it out to be. I want to fly one of these one day because it’s a totally different flight experience than getting around in a Cessna 172. The Helix also just looks like a ton of fun.

However, there are some stipulations you should know. You’ve probably noticed that the specs of the Helix aren’t impressive. A range of over 20 miles isn’t incredibly useful, and it’s lame that you cannot carry a passenger. Well, the FAA Part 103 is the reason for that. The FAA is quite strict about ultralights. I mean, after all, you can legally fly one without any training.

Helix Front

Ultralights are legally limited to a single occupant. That person cannot use their ultralight for anything but recreation or sport purposes. The ultralight, if powered, cannot weigh more than 254 pounds empty; with exceptions for amphibious ultralights and the weight added by safety equipment. That’s how the Helix weighs 348 pounds.

In addition to those tight aircraft constraints, the ultralight cannot have more than the equivalent of 5 gallons of fuel onboard and the aircraft cannot exceed 55 knots (63 mph) at full power in level flight.

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Ultralight operators are also limited in where and when they can fly their crafts. The FAA doesn’t allow ultralight pilots to fly at night and ultralights are largely limited to Class G uncontrolled airspace. Ultralights can fly in Class E controlled airspace if they aren’t flying near an airport and otherwise meet the other conditions.

Helix Profile

Once you combine all of those limitations, piloting a Pivotal Helix is pretty much resigned to rural areas. There’s nothing wrong with that. Almost all of my flight hours thus far have been over the flat farmlands of Illinois. To its credit, Pivotal is quite open about its eVTOL’s legal limitations.

These restrictions are why none of these ultralight eVTOLs will change aviation as some companies claim. You aren’t flying an eVTOL to your job in the city and back, and it probably wouldn’t be wise to use one on a grocery run to Dollar General.

There are qualifications for the pilots themselves. You cannot weigh more than 220 pounds, be taller than 6′ 5″, or have a sitting height taller than 3′ 3″. The Helix also operates in areas up to 5,000 feet above sea level, and cannot operate in winds greater than 20 mph, or temperatures higher than 91 degrees. It also doesn’t fly in temperatures below 14 degrees.

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More Expensive Than An SUV

Helix Hover Mode

The final part is price. While I’m certain almost anyone can fly a Helix, the eVTOL’s $190,000 base price might be hard to swallow for some. If you want a trailer for your Helix, a cart for detached wings, a radio, ADS-B, and the landing camera, that’ll be $240,000. If you want every possible feature, which includes an emergency locator transmitter, beacon lights, training for a second pilot, and custom paint, that’ll cost you $260,000.

That price is a far cry from the estimates of 2018 unless, by luxury SUV, Pivotal/Opener meant more expensive than a Mercedes-Benz AMG G63. A decent Cessna 172 Skyhawk will set you back about $130,000 today. Flight training can cost between $10,000 and $20,000. Where I live, 100LL aviation gas averages $6.31 a gallon. The Cessna flies faster, higher, and for longer, for less money. Maybe the Cessna 172 is too rich for your blood? You could get a Cessna 150 for $50,000 or less. Vintage planes and other ultralights get even cheaper.

Update: To be clear, a Cessna isn’t really a comparable aircraft, and pilots of them still have to deal with licensing and the FAA. The Helix also sounds far safer than an old piston aircraft. The comparison is to show that aviation doesn’t have to be a six-figure hobby.

Pivotal says its target customers are anyone who wants to enjoy flight, from people who are pilots to people who aren’t. The idea is that the Helix will open the skies to a wider variety of people than aviation currently does. I’m not sure the price achieves that. Pivotal does say it expects the Helix to be more than for recreation but perhaps turn into a platform for defense or public service. Maybe that’s the future.

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Oregon Coast Helix

If you do have the kind of cash the Helix commands, you can start your purchase process at Pivotal Aero. The company charges $250 to place an order, then a deposit of $50,000 within five days after. Eventually, you’ll get a spot in the production line and be able to schedule training. Pivotal expects customer orders to begin shipping again on June 10.

All of this said, perhaps I’m being too hard on Pivotal. This machine looks like a ton of fun and I bet buyers will be getting a ton of smiles for their money. Certainly, you’ll be a celebrity at local air shows! I think if Pivotal figured out how to lower that price, perhaps by half or more, then it would get much closer to achieving that goal of getting more people into flight. So, I’ll keep watching these small eVTOLs evolve, maybe one day they can become an affordable commodity.

(Images: Pivotal Aero, unless otherwise noted.)

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Defenestrator
Defenestrator
4 months ago

I can’t find a glide ratio in any of the specs. I assume it’s somewhat better than a rock, but not good enough to make an unpowered landing survivable. Probably no autorotation, either. I can see why they needed that parachute.

Lewin Day
Lewin Day
4 months ago

maybe we’re all destined to be pod people in the end

if it’s these pods, I could take that.

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
4 months ago

Paramotor, anyone? Those run about $10k for a decent setup and training from what I’ve gathered from the interballz. They even have electric ones. Although strapping a ton of lipo batteries to my back seems less than advisable.

The obvious advantage of this is it’s enclosed and offers a lot more safety than the skill of the person operating it. Just like a drone it won’t protect from abject idiocy and winding up on TikTok for a barely missed Darwin award.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
4 months ago

Can I use it to take out my stupid neighbor’s stupid treehouse?

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=YrfGzCfxmkI

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
4 months ago

I’m suddenly reminded of the egg drop challenge we had in elementary school science class.

Nope.
No way.

Like the Fiero in today’s shitbox showdown… kid me is running in circles, jumping and clapping with joy over this.

Adult me is… lame.

Last edited 4 months ago by Phantom Pedal Syndrome
TOSSABL
TOSSABL
4 months ago

I keep thinking of that Pinto you drove to the airport and sort of buckled the wing set on. I also wonder how long it’ll be until some idiot drops one on a house.
kid me: Tom Swift could do it better
old me: some playboy is going to make a spectacular headline with one of these

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
4 months ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

Are you alright Tossabl?
You don’t sound like yourself there.
Your comments are usually more thought out and concise.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
4 months ago

Concise??
Thanks mate: I don’t often get accused of that!
it was way late for me—and I tried to ape your then vs now form

Taco Shackleford
Taco Shackleford
4 months ago

Could this be useful for ranchers that use helicopters? Or maybe even replace ATVs in some cases?
I know the rules wouldn’t allow them to market it as such, but private property could totally allow for “commercial” use.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
4 months ago

Think I’ll stick with an autogyro for now. Still need a license, but a lot more useful.

Any new word on future hybrid craft? Everyone’s talking about electric, but it seems like a fuel/electric hybrid powered craft could realize useful efficiencies as well as solid working payload and ranges before a battery electric will achieve either of those.

SlowCarFast
SlowCarFast
4 months ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

I vote for “Passenger Drone” as the name for this vehicle.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
4 months ago
Reply to  SlowCarFast

Open the pod bay doors, Hal.

Abdominal Snoman
Abdominal Snoman
4 months ago

“including 25 to 30 miles of range with an 8 kWh battery, a 62 mph cruising speed, a 1,200-foot operating ceiling”

This seems too good to be true… that means this can get 3-4 miles per kW, which is better than most EV’s manage. I know that some gliders can get to as high as a 50:1 lift to drag ratio, but these wings look like they’d generate a minimal but not entirely insignificant amount of lift at 60mph. Is the rolling resistance of an EV + drag really that high compared to the amount of power it takes to suspend say 400lb for 25 minutes?

D-dub
D-dub
4 months ago
Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
4 months ago

Ok, after reading the word Pivotal so many times; I have to get this out:

PIVOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOT!!!

MrLM002
MrLM002
4 months ago

If there were VTOL Cessna 150s and Cessna 172s were VTOL your comparison would make sense.

The next best comparison would be the Mosquito Ultralight Helicopter. It’s a lot cheaper but you don’t have a ballistic recovery chute, it’ll require more training, the range is probably pretty similar but it’s easier to refuel quickly, not fully enclosed, it can be amphibious with the floats option, much more maintenance heavy, etc.

A standard category helicopter is going to run you a lot more, require a lot more maintenance, more training and insurance costs, and cost you a ton more in fuel. Also no ballistic chute.

VTOL makes up for a lot of the shortcomings of vehicles and this vehicle is no different.

Not having to deal with the FAA or insurance is a MASSIVE advantage. Being able to land and takeoff anywhere (including water) is a massive advantage. Electric powertrain is a massive advantage, etc.

As someone who hates Fly By Wire I’d much rather commute with one of these than a Cybertruck (with it’s drive by wire system).

Jack Beckman
Jack Beckman
4 months ago
Reply to  MrLM002

But not being allowed to fly hardly anywhere, and not having much range, makes this just an expensive toy. It looks like fun, but you won’t be using this for anything useful.

MrLM002
MrLM002
4 months ago
Reply to  Jack Beckman

There’s a massive amount of class G airspace. If it has some semblance of onboard storage I’d be interested.

MrLM002
MrLM002
4 months ago

To get my limited commercial license it was going to cost me $80K+ in fuel alone and that’s with the majority of the hours being in planes that burn no more than 9 GPH. That was back when AV GAS was under $4 a gallon.

Clear_prop
Clear_prop
4 months ago

The not flying in precipitation is probably due to propeller erosion. Wooden and some composite props have issues flying in precipitation.

MrLM002
MrLM002
4 months ago

My guess as to why not to fly in precipitation is the wings will lose lift due to the precipitation disrupting the airfoil. Some aircraft like the Grob-109A have trouble taking off with morning dew on the wings.

10001010
10001010
4 months ago

or temperatures higher than 91 degrees

I guess I won’t be seeing many of these in Houston, at least not between the months of April through December.

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
4 months ago
Reply to  10001010

As an Austinite, I was thinking the same thing. Won’t be seeing many in Texas. A shame since there is a lot of class G airspace in the state, apparently including my home since there is an ultralight that buzzes around a few times a year. One of the motorized parachute kind.

Live2ski
Live2ski
4 months ago

I’m in! checks elevation in backyard…5,338′ d’oh!

Crank Shaft
Crank Shaft
4 months ago

Did Jason do the TopShot? I feel like the Nyeeoowwww was his brilliance.

Compliments either way. 🙂

Clear_prop
Clear_prop
4 months ago

Considering you can get into a ultralight trike for $10k or so and get the same views with more range, I don’t see what the market is for this.

Even an ultralight helicopter is only around $50k.

For $200k, you are in RV-14 territory (two seats, ~500mi range), although that requires a pilot certificate.

Nic Periton
Nic Periton
4 months ago
Reply to  Clear_prop

The optional Cuisinart attachments are surprisingly affordable, can you make enough soup for a barn raising with your ultralight trike? Thought not.

Wuffles Cookie
Wuffles Cookie
4 months ago

Or, maybe the end goal really is to sell these to the military…

Removing the human pilot in exchange for remote operation would probably free up enough space for a M2 and some thermal cameras, so it’s a distinct possibility.

MrLM002
MrLM002
4 months ago
Reply to  Clear_prop

VTOL, low maintenance costs, enclosed canopy, ballistic chute, etc. This thing is a lot safer than any other VTOL vehicle I can think of including helicopters.

Someone I know experienced engine failure in a gazelle helicopter while “taxiing”, everyone survived but the helicopter was a total loss, it melted into a blob of aluminum with a few helicopter parts. If you’re forced to use Taxi-ways and such in your helicopter I wouldn’t buy a helicopter without wheels, as you’re hovering at an altitude you can’t successfully autorotate at if your engine were to fail every time you have to taxi.

Clear_prop
Clear_prop
4 months ago
Reply to  MrLM002

Spend 20x to get lower maintenance costs. Sounds like a winning strategy.

There are normal ultralights with enclosed canopies and ballistic chutes. Ultralights are all STOL, so not much disadvantage over VTOL.

MrLM002
MrLM002
4 months ago
Reply to  Clear_prop

10-20X for a safer machine with low maintenance and fuel costs that is a lot more quiet.

It depends on the ultralight. They do have low stall speeds yes, but with relatively low powered engines they don’t have the best ROC.

Saying something is STOL is like saying 4X4s are good off road, yes, but some are a ton better at it than others.

For example a Helio Stallion is leagues different from a Piper Cub.

While I am a fan of STOL aircraft VTOL aircraft have the advantage in terms of where they can land as they can cancel out all forward momentum, and always land into the wind. STOL aircraft have to contend with crosswinds just like all other aircraft and since aerodromes where you can land at any heading have gone the way of the dodo it’s a bit harder to pull it off.

I do wonder how bad the prop-rotor wash from this is in sandy conditions. Brownout can be a big concern, V-22s suffer quite badly from it.

SlowCarFast
SlowCarFast
4 months ago
Reply to  Clear_prop

Early adopter tax. These are likely being hand-built by a small crew, and they are still trying to recoup some of the development costs. Perhaps they also added the retainer for a liability lawyer to the purchase price.

Óscar Morales Vivó
Óscar Morales Vivó
4 months ago

Back in 2019 I was working next to the Redwood City marina and there were some folks testing out something very much like this form a floating platform. I’m not sure if this was the design they were running or it was a different startup though.

I’d need to lose so much weight to die in one of these though.

Sklooner
Sklooner
4 months ago

Those props bring the phrase ‘sketchy deathtrap’ to mind, I would buy a half dozen Ercoupes instead

Data
Data
4 months ago

Considering the average persons inability to negotiate the X and Y axis safely, throwing in the Z axis is terrifying.

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
4 months ago
Reply to  Data

Honestly what worries me the most is what people do along the t axis.

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