Costa Mesa firm tests first manned battery-powered chopper

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A Costa Mesa-based engineering firm recently achieved what’s believed to be the first manned flight of a conventional-size battery-powered helicopter.

Tier 1 Engineering, which has offices on West 17th Street and in Australia, staged the flight at the Los Alamitos Army Airfield last month.

One of the flights, which occurred Sept.21, was a record five-minute cruise to 400 feet altitude, with a peak speed of 80 knots. It was done in a modified Robinson R44 piloted by Ric Webb, owner of OC Helicopters, based at John Wayne Airport.


Tier 1’s team designed and integrated all of the helicopter’s subsystems, which included 1,100 pounds of lithium polymer batteries and twin electric motors. The Sept.21 flight used 20% of the batteries’ energy, the company said.

The effort to design, build and install the electric propulsion system started in January and was completed in July.

Tier 1’s flights are part of a contract project for Lung Biotechnology, a Maryland-based company that is looking to develop technology for distributing manufactured organs to major hospitals with less noise and a smaller carbon footprint than current technology.

“I’m very pleased to achieve this historic breakthrough in aviation,” Glen Dromgoole, president of Tier 1 Engineering, said in a statement.

“Never before has a manned helicopter performed a vertical takeoff, cruise and landing solely on battery power, and we are thrilled to have further achieved 400 feet altitude and 80 knots during our first full test flight.”