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Artist rendering of Electra's military configuration

Featured Article

John Langford Goes 'Back to the Future' to Change How We Fly

Article by Melinda Gipson

Photography by Marty Shoup, Blue Lion Multimedia, Melinda Gipson,

Originally published in Leesburg Lifestyle

Locked in traffic on the Beltway, surrounded by Teslas, have you never wondered why there aren’t electric planes?

Aeronautical engineers have been working on an economical approach to electronic propulsion in aircraft for decades. Until recently, batteries haven’t been light enough or efficient enough to store energy at remotely the same ratio as jet fuel. In fact, they still aren’t – and batteries aren’t the only problem. If such batteries are charged on a grid powered by coal, they’re not that much better for the environment than the fuel itself.

Now, however, some 200 electric aircraft programs are underway nationwide, and one local aviation pioneer may be zeroing in on a solution that could put an end to such traffic jams – eventually – while simultaneously curbing the carbon footprint of air travel, all without building elaborate aircraft charging stations.

Impossible, you say? You might not think so if you knew that this same pioneer had already flown aircraft using some of the same stored energy principles of his new, cutting-edge hybrid electric plane prototype while he was still an undergrad at MIT forty years ago.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but we draw this parallel because we’re not just telling a story about how Fairfax-based (, a next-generation aerospace company, is working to build electric, ultra-short takeoff and landing airplanes that fly more people and stuff quieter, further and more affordably. We’re also exploring how inspiration, ingenuity and entrepreneurship work together to shape our future. Electra’s Founder and CEO is John S. Langford III, and he’s rewriting the book on both manned flight and what drives innovation.

“What we’re trying to do with Electra is be part of the decarbonization of aviation, which is the only way to make it sustainable in a world that needs to move carbon emissions to zero in the next twenty years,” John explains. Air transportation produces 915 metric tons of CO2 every year, 12% of the transportation sector, but its effect on global warming is likely higher because emissions are released at high altitude.

Electra’s solution, to at least the short-haul flights, is a hybrid plane that pairs an aerodynamic technique called “blown lift” from wing-mounted propellers with a hybrid-electric propulsion system to deliver many of the operating characteristics of a helicopter more cheaply than today’s fixed-wing aircraft. (See artist depictions.) Under Langford’s supervision with about 15 full-time employees and 30-40 contractors, Electra is building a full-scale hybrid demonstrator aircraft that will begin flight testing later this year out of its test facility at the Manassas Regional Airport.

“Helicopters can take off and land almost anywhere, but they’re also noisy and very expensive. They cost on the order of five times the equivalent fixed-wing airplane,” John says, in detailing just one of the problems Electra is trying to tackle. Being able to take off and land in a small space is one of the key criteria necessary to enable air-taxi service in urban areas. But commercial short hops are only the beginning.

Distance for electric planes is an issue because of the limited capacity of today’s batteries to store and use energy even in concert with more conventional jet fuel. But Electra’s hybrid electric aircraft is designed to run on sustainable aviation fuel or “biofuels” like those Boeing is working to create. The best way to visualize the transformative effect of biofuels on flying is probably the scene in 1985’s Back to the Future, Part II where Doc Brown throws banana peels and beer into his “Mr. Fusion” flux capacitor to take off in his redesigned DeLorean time machine. (“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!”)

All Electra needs is 100 ft. of “runway” -- enough room to make a Tyson’s Corner rooftop or even a soccer field viable for take-off and landing of a piloted plane flying up to nine people. The commercial driver is an economical, shared flight service that would dramatically cut travel times between large, nearby urban areas, a pot of gold that has come to be known by Wall Street as “Advanced Air Mobility.” (Longtime readers will remember our story about a Leesburg lawyer who flies himself to Richmond and back to avoid traffic on Rt. 95 in our very first issue. But that’s travel for one, by a trained pilot, not a pathway to democratize or economize air travel.)

Going back to our original question, the short answer to why it’s not as easy to build an electric plane as an electric car is because batteries are heavy, and weight is important in airplanes. More propulsion-efficient carbon fuels pollute the atmosphere and speed global warming. Electra’s breakthrough design, which pairs biofuels with batteries that can be self-charged in flight, is the beginning of the answer, John believes.

“It isn’t going to happen overnight; it will happen in stages,” he adds, as both the propulsive efficiency of biofuels and the lightweight storage capacity of batteries improve. Both the Air Force’s Agility Prime Program and NASA’s Glenn Research Center appear to have endorsed Electra’s combination of eight “blown lift” propellors forcing air over the wing using flap systems to dramatically shorten the plane’s takeoff and landing radius. Electra has proven its concepts with a number of U.S. Air Force Small Business Innovation Research or SBIR contracts, leading to a Phase III award that will accelerate Electra’s development.

Typically, such awards bring with them not just funding, but also defense-level proof tests that clear a path towards the Defense Department buying several aircraft for its own use, which is one path companies tread to bring manufacturing costs down to size. Agility in Electra’s case is matched by stealth, as it runs much quieter than a helicopter. And, once on the ground, it could be run like a generator to power communications or other equipment necessary in a remotely operated base. The same configuration could also transport humanitarian organizations like Doctors Without Borders to hotspots ready to operate.

John says the U.S. SBIR program is, “one of the greatest programs the government has. People love to talk about government programs that don't work, but you rarely talk about the programs that are spectacular successes, and the SBIR program is one of those.... When I talk to colleagues in other countries, they cannot believe that the U.S. government will give you money to start a company without taking any equity.” The fact that the program is run competitively means that only innovators need apply, and DOD supervision makes the receiving companies run as efficiently as possible. “Small companies are more agile and innovative, so the government program manager gets his or her money’s worth,” while driving American competitiveness and innovation.

SBIR money was fundamental to the success of John’s last company, Aurora Flight Sciences, which John founded in Manassas in 1989, and sold to Boeing in 2017. Over the last 30 years, the company has earned more than 100 patents on advances in autonomous piloted and unpiloted flight and advanced composite manufacturing, among other things.

The bigger companies become, the more pressure their shareholders put on management to curb research and development, John opines, citing principles from The Innovator’s Dilemma by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen. Among other theories the book expounds on why, faced with transformative change, great managers make exactly the wrong decisions about their growth path.

Running a smaller company like Aurora, he enjoyed the autonomy of being able to research and develop a number of potential solutions before settling on those that offer the best economics, “plus I’m more suited to a small company environment,” he allows. “I’ve always subscribed to the mantra, ‘Think big; start small; act now.’” Aurora had the opportunity to do a whole series of vertical takeoff and landing designs for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA. As a result of this experience, for his money, extremely short takeoff and landing hybrids will beat the economics of both pure electric or hydrogen powered and vertical lift vehicles for the foreseeable future.

Besides fueling his thirst for innovation – providing the start-up capital for Electra– the sale of Aurora also fueled another of John’s passions: educating the next generation of innovators. Through a series of unforeseen events, he was made aware that the model rocket company Estes Industries ( was available for sale out of bankruptcy and bought it. Founded in 1958, the family-owned company has built and sold hundreds of the model rockets that fueled the imagination of young students like himself. John saw his first Estes catalog in 5th Grade and acquired his first rocket on his 11th birthday. “And I literally never looked back,” he said. “I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and ended up going to MIT” – mostly because of the MIT Rocket Program team he met via the various model rocket society competitions he entered around the country.

Note that Estes is still a family-owned company, currently run by John’s daughter-in-law, Mallory Langford, from the Electra offices in Fairfax. The company still produces models of nearly every noteworthy real rocket, including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin’s Blue Shepherd and NASA’s Space Launch System Artemis, the largest rocket ever made. With its Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. Artemis I’s first “wet” dress rehearsal before launch was scheduled to take place in March as we went to press.

Estes, as before, continues its strong support for The American Rocketry Competition, or TARC, sponsored by the National Association of Rocketry ( This year as for the last 65, TARC will draw the top 100 student rocket teams from among around 5,000 to compete in the finals on May 14 at Great Meadow in The Plains, Virginia. Their challenge: to build and fly a model rocket that carries two raw large hen eggs, mounted sideways, to an altitude of 835 feet, stays airborne for between 41 and 44 seconds and returns the rocket to the ground safely.

The importance of the competition in inspiring the next generation of aerospace engineers is incalculable, John says. “It’s backed by the Aerospace Industries Association and the AIAA – all of the big companies in aerospace – as a workforce development initiative. A host of new companies are competing for the same talent pool. Will they go to work for Boeing or Lockheed or Facebook or Google? The industry concluded that we have to up our game in inspiring and recruiting and mentoring the next generation. It’s also how you build diversity in the workforce, whether it’s women in aerospace or people of color, you have to work with kids when they’re making career decisions... and trust me that’s well before you think they’re making career decisions. Just having a role model and opportunities, that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

Here again, John puts his money where his mouth is; one-third of Electra’s top teammates are women, and he’s opened the doors of his start-up to 10 interns from around the country for the summer.

Connections carry throughout your career, he adds. At Aurora, getting involved with AIA, meant being seated alphabetically at meetings, which is how John forged a relationship with the folks at Boeing who bought his first company. Lockheed Martin, both a local and industry connection, is now an investor in Electra.

Just hitting the “high” notes of his own career, as an MIT undergrad John worked at the Carter White House designing national policy for aeronautical research and development. While at MIT, he program-managed both the Monarch precursor to and the Daedalus 88 aircraft, the human-powered plane that flew the 115 km from the Iraklion Air Force Base on Crete in the Mediterranean Sea to the island of Santorini in 3 hours 54 minutes. In the process, the aircraft set new records in distance and endurance for a human powered aircraft, and John credits Monarch as ancestor to Electra’s principle of alternating between stored and in-flight generated energy. (Daedalus, for its part, was named for the mythic Greek engineer who built wings of wax and feathers to escape his Cretan exile and whose son Icarus melted his wings when he flew too close to the sun.)

Straight out of MIT undergraduate school, John headed to Lockheed’s (now Lockheed Martin’s) “Skunk Works,” famous for its Advanced Development Programs, where he worked on the then secret F-117 stealth bomber. He founded Aurora in 1989, straight out of grad school.

John as both entrepreneur and mentor has always believed in competitions as a way to advance innovation. It was a competition that inspired the Daedalus program, and competitions that have advanced the science of flight -- like the Orteig Prize, Kremer Prizes, DARPA Grand Challenge and NASA’s Green Flight Challenge -- are too numerous to mention here. So, naturally, as the past president of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, he’s championing a National Aeronautic Association/ Pulitzer Electric Aircraft Race from Omaha to Kitty Hawk awarding a prize to the zero-emission aircraft turning in the fastest time (

John pitches such a contest as the “Electric Airplane Acid Test,” and is ready to pit Electra against all comers. The combined market value of the top 10 companies competing for a stake in the regional Advanced Air Mobility market is on the order of $6 billion, he reckons, so it won’t be without raising substantial additional capital. The company is in the middle of a Series A funding round that it hopes to wrap up by summer. Next year, a Series B would lead to the first commercial, 9-passenger plane. “The total addressable market for trip distances of between 50 and 250 miles is likely in the trillions” of dollars, John says, so the payout for those who succeed in the market is substantial, but so are the risks of failure.

“Maybe 5%-10% of startups in the field will succeed, so you want to know what you’re doing. But for those who have the risk appetite, and are properly calibrated about the time frame and the cost, it's a great time to be an investor in aviation.” And, it’s a great time to have a near zero emissions plane that can get in and out of small spaces without a conventional runway, with no power stations, at less than the cost of a conventional airplane. “We think that is going to be a very big deal,” John says.

  • Artist rendering of Electra's Commercial Air Taxi
  • John Langford Goes 'Back to the Future' For Electronic Flight
  • John holds an Estes model of NASA's Artemis Rocket, Destined for the Moon
  • Finally, it's easier to diagram how Electra's hybrid system works
  • Mallory Langford, President of Estes Industries
  • Artist rendering of Electra's military configuration
  • Electra engineers JP Stewart and Oliver Masefield in front of one of the Electra electric propellers.  Eight of these go on the Technology Demonstrator aircraft
  • Felix Moritz, George Bucsan, Tim Moser, Diana Siegel, JP Stewart and Peter Daetwyler discuss Electra’s new hybrid-electric airplane.
  • Electra’s hybrid-electric ultra-short....
  • Image of Electra’s hybrid eSTOL aircraft at New York’s Downtown Manhattan Heliport.
  •  Bristow Group, the world's leading global provider of vertical flight solutions, is Electra’s principal launch operational customer.
  • An Electra eSTOL aircraft flies over Geelong, Australia from an airport operated by Skyportz, Australia’s trailblazing air mobility infrastructure developer.