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Aviation inspiration

WCS student tours electric airplane company founded by WCS alumnus

 BY JASON STARR

Observer staff

Sixth-grader Jonah Wayman has a lot in common with Beta Technologies founder and CEO Kyle Clark. Both are Williston Central School-educated, both are captivated by aviation and both are bullish on electric-powered flight.

Beta Technologies is developing electric airplanes out of its headquarters at Burlington International Airport and two manufacturing facilities on Avenue D in Williston. Wayman reached out to the company as part of his “Genius Hour” project on electric planes in Joy Peterson and Jared Bailey’s humanities class at Williston Central.

The company, fresh off an eye-popping ($368 million) investment announcement from Amazon and Fidelity, presented Wayman an unforgettable offer: spend a day at the airport, flying in a helicopter piloted by former Obama Administration Marine One pilot Nick Warren, testing out a flight simulator, meeting engineers and pilots and touring a model electric plane lab. Wayman’s day at Beta was this Wednesday. On June 11, the company plans a flyover above Williston Central School as part of the students’ Genius Hour open house. 

“This is my dream come true,” Wayman said Tuesday. “It’s really exciting. I’m going to learn a lot. It’s going to be really fun.”

Katie Clark, who works in community outreach and communications for the company, hears echoes of CEO Kyle Clark (her husband) in Wayman’s enthusiasm. 

Kyle Clark grew up in Williston and went to WCS until his eighth-grade year, when he moved to Essex. He graduated from Essex High School — where he met Katie — and went on to study math and engineering at Harvard. According to Katie, Kyle used a signing bonus from the Washington Capitals where he had signed on to play professional hockey in the NHL, to instead enroll in flight school and become a licensed pilot. 

“Jonah sounds a lot like Kyle did when he was a kid,” Katie said. “His passion for aviation goes back as long as he can remember. And he loves inspiring kids to fly.”

The company’s community outreach efforts were hampered over the past year by the pandemic. Wayman’s visit marks the start of a renewed effort to “inspire the next generation of aviators,” Katie said. She predicts that thousands of pilots and mechanics are going to be needed to work on electric aircraft in the future.

“We’re very excited about what we are doing here and really excited to share what we have going on with kids, students and the community,” she said. “It’s been a long time coming for us. If we can make an impact on a student who is passionate about aviation and share what we’ve learned and create a meaningful experience for him, that is super meaningful to us … We’re thrilled to have Jonah here and to show him around.”

The company’s aircraft, the Alia, is being developed as a manned delivery plane with investments from Amazon, UPS and United Therapeutics. The plane can take off and land vertically, reach speeds of 170 mph with a 250-mile range and carry over a ton of cargo, according to an April report in VTDigger. It is charged with ground chargers that the company manufactures on Avenue D.

The plane seats six. Passenger electric planes are in the company’s future plans, as are unmanned delivery planes. 

“Our first roll out will be in delivery, but we are designing our aircraft to eventually move people as well,” Katie said.

Beta was founded in 2017 with eight employees. The company’s new facility at the airport will help it more than double from its current 200 employees.

“In the next few years, we’re going to have to be rolling out an aircraft a day to meet our goals and keep our promises,” Katie said. 

The investments from UPS and Amazon are significant milestones for the company.

“It is a pretty big deal,” Katie said. “It shows a vote of confidence that we’re the real deal and that they have faith that we are a leader in this industry and we are going to be able to bring this product to market and make an impact on the environment. It’s validating to have companies like UPS and Amazon and United Therapeutics behind us and show that they believe in what we’re doing.”

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