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VTOL: A rising opportunity for support services [MRO Editorial] Open the MRO Magazine - February 2023 Edition

AviTrader MRO editor recently caught up with Dave Merrill, Chief Executive Officer at Elroy Air to discuss the development of the new VTOL cargo flyer and the case for maintenance support.

LCI will acquire up to 40 Chaparral cargo systems © LCI Aviation

The appeal towards vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft is growing steadily, as with their potential to meet size gaps in the aviation and related sectors. Several different applications for these vehicles are under development with some already in the flight test phase. Elroy Air, the company developing what it calls the first end-to-end autonomous VTOL aerial cargo system, unveiled its pre-production Chaparral aircraft just over a year ago. “We have seen a lot of demand for our VTOL aircraft, the Chaparral and to date we have demand for more than 900 systems,” declares Dave Merrill, CEO at Elroy. The Chaparral is designed for aerial transport of up to 500 lbs (225 kgs) of goods over a 300 nautical mile range. This is enabled initially by a turbine-based hybrid-electric powertrain with distributed electrical propulsion, and specially designed aerodynamic modular cargo pods.

Dave Merrill, CEO at Elroy Air

US regional carrier Mesa Airlines saw a requirement for The Chaparral early in the programme and placed an intent to order 150 aircraft to serve the express parcel and healthcare sectors. Mesa operates large fleets of aircraft for airline partners including United Airlines and DHL. “Mesa Airlines is a significant partner who saw the value of Chaparral early on. They are committed to enabling autonomous VTOL solutions in their network and we’re excited to work with them,” says Merrill, but he was unable to disclose specific delivery dates at the time of this writing.

The most recent order is from LCI Aviation in January this year a subsidiary of Libra Group and who’s commercial aviation portfolio includes fixed-wing aircraft leases to international carriers. LCI will acquire up to 40 Chaparral units. “Through our agreement with LCI, the Chaparral will be available for financing – enabling much broader access to the aircraft. We are proud that the Chaparral will now be part of LCI’s aviation fleet and look forward to providing aerial cargo transport globally.”

“We have multiple partners who provide MRO services, and we will be building this capability out to regionally support our customers.”

Dave Merrill, Elroy Air

The new VTOL aircraft will complement LCI’s existing fleet of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. In addition, LCI and its parent company, Libra Group, whose subsidiaries own and operate assets in approximately 60 countries, plan to share commercial, financial and end-user expertise with Elroy Air through well-established industry networks.

Speaking on the latest development progress, Merrill says flight testing has now moved to a new facility at Byron Airport in California. In partnership with Urban Air Mobility – a joint-venture between MS Commercial, Inc. and Nearon Enterprises – Elroy Air has leased and prepared a new 7,000 square foot hangar at Byron Airport for its ground and flight test campaigns, to ensure smooth and efficient progress into the next flight test campaign and beyond. The Byron hangar is equipped with a large storage and work area, the first production Chaparral vehicle (C1-1), and due to the Chaparral’s wing stowing mechanism multiple C1 systems this can be housed and maintained in the hangar.

“We have worked with the Contra Costa county airport team to establish a dedicated test area where a helipad has been installed for dedicated flight testing purposes,” he reveals.

Elroy Air is using the new facility to support full-scale ground and flight testing. The company will initially be conducting tie-down testing to validate the software and hardware of its Chaparral C1 vehicles to validate safety of flight through a series of ground tests. Elroy Air has moved their Ground Control Station (GCS) to the airport, a custom-built mobile enclosure with engineering stations, weather monitoring, viewport windows, a dedicated network infrastructure, a datalink control and monitoring radio system and a rooftop observation deck. The GCS contains its own uninterruptible power supply (UPS), aircraft monitoring computers, and a climate control system. The GCS will be used to support both ground and flight tests.

“We plan to conduct flight testing in 2023 and 2024 and conduct limited demonstrations with customers beginning in 2023 and more in 2024,” Merrill further reveals.

Regarding certifications, Merrill explains that EVTOL aircraft present new configurations to regulators that have not been certified before, but many of the subsystems and materials are familiar to regulators and there is very strong collaboration between OEMs and regulatory authorities like the FAA.

VTOL technologies and propulsions are clearly still in their infancy and developing an aftermarket support network will be a key focus in the years to come. Merrill says delivering on the mission to provide logistics to areas that are difficult or hard to reach using traditional manned aircraft means there is need to build a system and support that system on a regional level. “We have multiple partners who provide MRO services, and we will be building this capability out to regionally support our customers as we deploy systems worldwide.”

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