With technology improving all the time, certain firms look to push the boundaries of possibility. One such company is Kitty Hawk, which developed a single-seated flying machine in 2017. However, when a pilot was testing the prototype over a lake, everyone had to hold their breath.
As the sun beams down over the San Francisco Bay Area in the summer of 2017, a group of onlookers gather on a nearby pier. In the middle of a lake stands an artificial platform, tied to two large pillars. With several boats passing by in the distance, two men then proceed to check over an intriguing looking machine on the floating stage.
As the checks continue, one of the men jumps on top of the machine, sitting down in the single seat. After taking a few moments to strap himself in, he then appears ready to test the contraption out. That machine, as it turns out, is a prototype of the Kitty Hawk Flyer, a one-man aircraft powered by electricity.
Back in 1903 the Wright brothers prepared for their very first flight from the beach city of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Everything changed after that pivotal event, with aircraft steadily evolving over the following years. Due to the importance of that moment, more than 100 years later a California-based stealth company specializing in flight technology adopted the name Kitty Hawk.
Kitty Hawk is funded by Larry Page, the co-founder of internet search giants Google, while German computer scientist Sebastian Thrun is the firm’s CEO. “Today, in California, we are building on [the Wright brothers’] legacy to create the next generation of vehicles for everyday flight,” reads a statement on the company’s website.
“We have started the journey by designing, testing and building all-electric vertical take-off and landing products for work and play,” the statement continues. “By partnering with public and private customers we will improve our urban and natural environments with efficient and reliable mobility.” And one of those machines is the Kitty Hawk Flyer, which came into the public eye during the summer of 2017.
Built by engineers Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson, the Kitty Hawk Flyer prototype resembles a massive drone in its appearance. The machine can reach speeds of 25 mph when flying over water due to the eight propellers located on its underside, with a single seat adorning the craft’s top half.
Despite its intriguing shape and size, though, the prototype weighed just 220 pounds, meaning it was considered an “ultralight aircraft.” As a result, any potential owner of the Kitty Hawk Flyer wouldn’t require a pilot’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration to use it.
The controls, meanwhile, were designed to look and feel as simple as possible. “The flight controls use thumbsticks just like an Xbox,” Robertson told Business Insider UK in May 2017. “The right thumb lets you tilt the Flyer in any direction, and the left controls the altitude and heading.”
“We aimed for an experience that was as universal and familiar as possible,” Robertson continued. “Our system makes flying easy by handling all the things that usually make other aircraft more complex. The flight computer assesses the altitude and thrust of the aircraft at all times, and in the background controls each motor to maintain stability.”
With that in mind, Kitty Hawk revealed the prototype to the public in April 2017, releasing a video showing what the machine could do. This initial version of the Kitty Hawk Flyer could only be flown over water, and later that summer the company wanted to test the machine again. On this occasion, the location was a sun-drenched lake in San Francisco, California, in front of an intrigued audience.
In the video, after completing his checks on the floating platform, the test pilot then fires up the prototype. As the eight propellers begin to power up, the air is filled with a distinctive sound, resembling that of a large swarm of bees. Within a few moments, the Kitty Hawk Flyer slowly lifts off the ground before moving back towards the water.
As the people on the nearby pier hold their breath, the prototype continues to rise in the air, with the propellers giving it the necessary elevation. The test pilot then turns the aircraft around and begins to fly across the vast lake, maintaining the same altitude.
For the next few minutes, he continues to demonstrate the capabilities of the Kitty Hawk Flyer, moving closer to the pier so that the public can take a better look. After that, the test pilot then flies the prototype back towards the floating platform, slowly decreasing his altitude. With the propellers still powered up, he eases the craft down and lands smoothly.
After turning the power off, the test pilot is greeted by a round of applause from those on the pier, evidently impressed by what they’ve seen. The footage of flight was posted on YouTube in June 2017 and has earned more than 3.5 million views to date. In addition, the video has over 15,000 likes and generated more than 2,000 comments.
With public interest in the aircraft seemingly growing, Kitty Hawk then revealed a brand-new model of the Flyer in June 2018. Unlike the previous prototype that looked like a drone, this one bore a much closer resemblance to a small plane, boasting ten propellers compared to the former’s eight.
The new model also weighed 30 pounds more than the prototype, but it was still light enough to avoid needing a pilot’s license from the FAA. Meanwhile, the controls were very similar, as you would use a joystick to move the aircraft around. Just like the earlier version, though, this Kitty Hawk Flyer could only be used over water.
The company subsequently invited two reporters from CNN to test the aircraft in Las Vegas, Nevada, with intriguing results. “The joystick is so intuitive, but it’s not the most comfortable thing I’ve ever sat in,” said journalist Rachel Crane in June 2018. “You definitely feel the vibrations.”
Despite those minor reservations, though, Crane was a big fan of the new Kitty Hawk Flyer, reaching a speed of 6 mph on her test flight. The company claims that aircraft of that type will ease road congestion, with pre-orders already being taken. However, it’s believed that these very early sales have been made to some of Kitty Hawk’s partners, as opposed to individual members of the public.
As technology continues to improve with each passing day, the boundaries of what’s possible are always being pushed. In 2017 Kitty Hawk gave the world a glimpse of a possible future, suggesting that flying cars might not be a distant dream. The subsequent reaction certainly indicates a strong public interest in seeing whether those plans come to fruition.