NEW YORK – This past week, Airways was given the opportunity to sit down (virtually) with Otto Aviation CEO Bill Otto Jr. to discuss Otto Aviation’s newly released aircraft, the Celera 500L.
In an effort to bring comfortable, affordable private aviation options to more customers, Otto Aviation has introduced the Celera 500L. By utilizing innovative design features, the Celera 500L competes with aircraft in its class with lower operating costs, long-range, and maximizing comfort for passengers.
Some key features of the Celera 500L include 18-23mpg fuel economy, US$328 hourly operating cost, 4,500 nautical mile range, and a payload of 6 passengers. The Celera 500 represents over 10 years of work in designing an aircraft that, through laminar flow, decreases drag, and therefore increases performance and decreases cost.
Otto Aviation presents the Celera 500L as an aircraft with a myriad of opportunities in the commercial, private, and cargo logistics sectors. As specified in our interview, the Celera 500’s versatile cabin could be used by cargo logistics airlines to increase cargo connectivity to smaller cities.
In addition, the aircraft’s long-range allows the aircraft to travel between almost any two cities in the continental United States. The next steps for Otto Aviation will center around creating an order book for the Celera 500L, achieving FAA certification, and continuing to improve on their technology.
What is Laminar Flow?
The Celera 500L does not look like any ordinary aircraft. In fact, when the aircraft was first brought out for testing, it drew the eyes of many who had never seen anything like it before.
The unique design of the aircraft is in part due to its usage of laminar flow. The engineering term describes this as the movement of particles along surfaces in smooth layers. Particles, or in the case of aircraft, airflow, move parallel to the exterior of aircraft using laminar flow.
According to Otto Aviation, compared to aircraft in its class, the use of laminar flow results in a ~59% decrease in drag. The decrease in drag allows aircraft to fly farther and faster using less fuel.
Private/Semi-Private Aviation Market Analysis
In recent years, we have seen an increase in airlines that operate private aircraft commercially on point-to-point routes. These airlines include Boutique Air (4B) and JetSuiteX (XE) among others. The strategy of these airlines is to give passengers the feeling of flying private jets while offering competitive prices.
The airlines also market a hassle-free experience in a business class environment. Customers are able to avoid long airport lines and, at times, the chaotic experience of flying commercially. While private aviation was previously unreachable for those not in the ultra-wealthy upper class, these airlines are making the experience of private aviation available to a wider range of customers.
Boutique Air operates a fleet of single-engine PC-12 and King Air 350 aircraft. The airline markets the interior of the aircraft as luxurious and comfortable with business-class amenities. In comparison to the Celera 500L’s current 6 passenger configuration, the PC-12, and King Air 350 aircraft have passenger capacities of 9 and 11, respectively.
In July of this year, a Forbes article described the contrast between the commercial aviation sector’s fall in demand compared to the increase in demand for private air travel. According to publication, the private aviation sector had recovered to 90% of its normal levels.
Popular with the affluent and corporate employees, Teterboro Airport (TEB) in New Jersey dominates the private aviation market as a hub for private jet airlines. Last year, 73,159 departures were recorded from TEB, making it by far the busiest airport for private aviation.
Prominent private jet charter airlines like Jet Linx (JTL), based at TEB, have been rapidly expanding their fleets to respond to the growing demand for charter flights.
This is an interview between Kochan Kleps from Airways Magazine (AW), and Bill Otto Jr, CEO of Otto Aviation (BOJ). Minor nuances may have been changed from the direct interview in order to better communicate the information.
AW: Thank you for taking the time to take our interview. First, could you introduce our readers to Otto Aviation and the Celera 500L?
BOJ: Otto Aviation was founded by my father, Bill Otto Sr. who had a big background in aerospace. He was originally in the guidance sector where he was the systems engineer on the Minuteman Missile guidance program.
He then worked in ocean systems, this was at North American Aviation, worked in ocean systems developing torpedoes for the Navy and working on submarines and so forth; finally, he was chief scientist on the B-1 bomber avionics study.
He left North American, started his own consulting practice, and he was traveling so much that he looked into buying his own business jet to get from point a to point b, but quickly recognized that if you’re gonna fly a mission across the country, you needed a business jet in order to do that.
The jets were so inefficient in their consumption of fuel, that he just couldn’t justify the price tag (that’s either himself or his customers). That got him curious as to why aviation was so expensive.
During his time in ocean systems, when they were looking at torpedo bodies, they were working with natural laminar bodies that had a very low drag. He thought, ‘what would one of those bodies look like if we put it into an airplane configuration, couple that with laminar wings and laminar tails and then utilize a very efficient propulsion system.’
He started doing all his dry calc[ulation]s and came up with numbers that he thought were too good to be true when he first took a look at them.
He called in the aerodynamicist who he worked at North American and said, ‘hey, I’ve got this concept for a new business aircraft. I want you to take a look at this and tell me if I’m missing a decimal place somewhere.’ They both came back and said, ‘no, your calculations are correct. If you built it like this, this is how it will perform.’
That was the origin of our project. My father worked on this nights and weekends as a hobby for a long period of time, developing the basic design of the aircraft, and we built third scale models and a ten scale models, and we flew it on flight simulators, and everything was checking out.
We went to start building the full scale prototype and we quickly realized that we could no longer fund this with our own internal funding. I got involved in the program at that point, that was in 2008, and helped raise some outside money to bring the company to its current position.
Since that time, we’ve been flying this aircraft for two years. We first flew in January of 2018. In the fourth quarter of 2019, we did our full performance test envelope, testing out the aerodynamics of this aircraft. We got the results that we were predicting.
Ultimately what this means is that what we have is an aircraft that will be capable of flying at 460mph at 50,000 feet, we’ll have a 4500 nautical mile range, and most importantly, we will be doing this getting fuel economy getting anywhere from 18-25mpg which is a significant increase over current business aircraft that have the same performance capabilities.
A comparable business jet at those speeds and ranges is a midsize business jet, which typically gets between 2-3mpg. By virtue of the much better fuel economy and also less expensive maintenance on the engine, we’re able to get our direct operating cost down to US$328 per hour.
This gets us to a price point that will make us competitive with commercial air travel when people are traveling on the Celera 500. We’re gonna have the capability of offering private transportation at a cost similar to commercial aviation.
Operations and Logistics
AW: Obviously the Celera 500 has a lot of possibilities; are you looking to go more into the commercial sector or private sector?
BOJ: We really see initial uses in cargo because we’ve got a very large cabin and it lends itself to package delivery to some of the smaller cities so we see that as a real opportunity.
We also see this initially as a charter vehicle. Basically, individuals or companies can charter this aircraft and recognize the savings of the Celera 500L going direct to any city pair in the United States. We see that as a very large market.
We could see it in an on-demand service where you call upon your app that you want to go from El Paso to Austin, Texas at this time, and the aircraft will come and pick you up and take you on that route.
In order to get a true system in place, you need a lot of aircraft, so I think initially it does start in charter and eventually it becomes the air taxi type model.
AW: For that kind of operation, it sounds like you need a lot of logistics. Do you have any partnerships in mind or any companies you might be working with to worry about the logistics?
BOJ: We do have some companies in mind, I am under NDA right now with those companies so I can’t make disclosures on that, but there is definitely interest in this kind of air transportation system.
AW: Do you know how many approximate aircraft are forecasted to be needed for that kind of market?
BOJ: Yes I do; it’s a lot of aircraft. Some of the initial forecasting has been 6,000 to 7,000 aircraft to service that demand.
AW: We see the evolution of air travel, especially during this time of COVID-19, and I think you’re aircraft and that model has a lot of viability in the United States market. We have airlines like Boutique Air or JetSuiteX where they operate small private aircraft on point to point. It sounds like that may be a very viable option.
BOJ: Yes, we see that the traveler is very sensitive to price. As you bring the cost down, your audience expands exponentially. Right now, the jets are limited to the ultra-wealthy, when you’re spending US$3,000, us$3,500 an hour to travel. With this aircraft in service, that number is gonna come way down and it’s gonna open up the doors to many more people.
I always use my family as an example, we’re upper-middle class, a family of 5, and the example I always use is we got invited to a family wedding in New Orleans, we live in Houston.
The minute the invitation came out, I looked into buying airfares, and the cheapest ticket I could find on our schedule was $560 that was leaving on a Friday right when the kids got out of school and coming back at a decent hour on Sunday.
That was US$2,800 for the five of us. We could have chartered this aircraft, if it had been available, for less than that. And so when you start looking at that throughout the United States, it’s a very compelling demand proposition.
AW: Are there any specific markets within the United States you’re looking at?
BOJ: We’re probably a little too early on that. I think you’ll notice, though, that the concentration is on charter air services, and there’s a lot of demand up in the Northeast and on the coast. We believe that this aircraft will be available nationwide.
AW: Especially living in New York City, I see having to go sometimes to different cities on the East Coast, and I think having an option like this would be really competitive. Amtrak takes hours and airfare is really expensive, and especially for some companies that need to transport employees often, this would be really great.
BOJ: Yeah, there’s a saying: consultants, accountants, and attorneys travel in packs. This would be a fantastic aircraft if you have two or three people that need to go to the same destination. You’re gonna more than likely beat the commercial airfares.
Not to mention the savings in time and the ability to go back and forth in a single day, the ability to work in privacy, all the benefits that you typically get from private aviation will be more available to more people.
COVID-19’s Impact on Aviation
AW: How has your outlook and forecast changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the obvious implications on the aviation industry.
BOJ: We were at the tail end of our flight testing when COVID really became prevalent. We started having all the safety measures put in place. Our flight test center is in California, and at that point in time we weren’t allowed to fly, and we haven’t deemed an essential business.
We stopped our flight test program. Because we already had a lot of the results we were after, we switched gears and started working on the optimization of the aircraft. This prototype, if you saw the pictures, we don’t have windows in it.
There are a number of things we are going to be changing for what we call our production vehicle. We’re gonna take weight out of this vehicle, design windows into it, we’re gonna do a more elegant cooling system that’s a lower drag. There’s a number of things we’re working on.
From a company perspective, we started working remotely, and that’s worked out very well with Microsoft Teams and all the web availability and connectivity which has allowed us to not miss a beat on the development side.
As it pertains to the overall market, we don’t know how long COVID-19 is going to last. When we started this project, obviously COVID-19, and this type of pandemic was never part of our business equation.
We do believe that there is an awareness that people don’t want to travel in the big tubes, and the other thing that’s taken place is that due to the low demand, airlines are cutting routes and cutting service.
We don’t know exactly how that’s all gonna come back over time, but we do believe that there’s gonna be a big benefit to traveling in smaller groups; especially, if you can do it at prices that are competitive with the airlines.
AW: If there’s one thing we’ve seen, it’s that the aviation industry is not going to look the same after we come out of this.
BOJ: Right, they’ve been hit really hard, and you’re seeing it right now with all the layoffs and we started seeing it firsthand. Our flight test center is at Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California and that is a well known storage area for airlines, and the increase in the number of aircraft that have been delivered; you look out there and it’s just been amazing to see that much idle capacity.
AW: Going back to the development of your aircraft, what sort of flexibility will the interior have?
BOJ: We could go up to eight seats if we wanted to. It wouldn’t be quite as comfortable and wouldn’t have as much legroom but we could definitely fit eight in there.
A lot of the surveys that have been done, and through market research, we have found that typically, the average number of people that travel on a charter flight is about three, so we didn’t feel the need to pack a lot of seats in there.
We do have the flexibility, depending on the customer, to have as many as eight and as few as four. We would see the four-seater being for longer routes with full layout-type seats.
The cabin will also have a lavatory. Obviously, for traveling long distances, we’re going to have a fully enclosed lavatory and galley as well.
AW: Where do you see your company in 10 years time in terms of bringing the Celera 500 out to the public?
BOJ: That’s a good question because one of the things we just announced to the public is that the Celera 500L is in existence. There are a couple of articles about us that saw us on the runway and such, but a lot of that was speculation as to what we were.
We do have a timeline; we won’t be able to bring this to commercial service probably until 2025, just due to the FAA certification process.
If you look at 10 years, what we really see is Otto Aviation, the Celera 500L, being the backbone for a transportation system that has many aircraft traveling throughout the United States, basically reducing cost in the private sector, providing more convenience to travelers, and generating a lot of pilot jobs.
We’re hoping to see the Celera 500L everywhere is what it comes down to.
AW: Have you had any specific challenges that your company has had to overcome?
BOJ: Of course; building an aircraft is not easy and building an aircraft that has very high tolerances that are necessary to achieve the laminar flow makes it even more difficult. Just in constructing the tooling that allows us to have the surface quality necessary for laminar flow is a challenge.
We went through multiple techniques to finally get ourselves to a process that allows us to create these laminar surfaces. Just engineering something as complex as an airplane has its own challenges.
We’ve got a very unique shape; we don’t have a lot of things hanging off the aircraft; everything’s conformal; that presented its unique challenges in construction. Those are probably the main challenges that we faced. We’re doing something for the first time, and whenever you do something for the first time, it’s difficult.
AW: It seems like a large task, but it also seems like your company is going at a strong pace.
BOJ: Thank you; we worked under the radar for quite a period of time; our philosophy was that we wanted to prove the aircraft before we made announcements. These are some pretty big claims to have this level of increase in terms of efficiency.
We wanted to have the results available before we announced the aircraft. Once we completed our performance testing, we felt like it was about the right time to go ahead and let people know what we’re doing.
The Bottom Line
AW: Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers, or any other insights?
BOJ: We still have a lot of work to do. We’re looking forward to bring the Celera 500L to market so that everyone will have the opportunity to travel privately with the convenience of non-stop routes between city pairs they want to go to. We hope to drop people off closer to their final destinations, and we want to do it at prices competitive with commercial airlines; that’s our mission.
Thank you again to Bill Otto Jr. and Otto Aviation for inviting us to write about the Celera 500L and taking the time to sit down with us for an interview. To find out more about Otto Aviation and the Celera 500L, visit Otto Aviation’s website:
Featured image: Otto Aviaton’s Celera 500L. Photo: Otto Aviation