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May
10
2021

Executive Watch - Martin Peryea, CEO of Jaunt Air Mobility

Posted 39 days ago ago by Admin

"I have a love and hate type of thing with helicopters," Martin Peryea says with a little laugh. Indeed, he should have mixed feelings. The CEO and chief technology officer of Jaunt Air Mobility, a leading new company on the frontier of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, spent decades researching and developing traditional helicopters for Bell Helicopter and headed up that manufacturer's futuristic aircraft development organization, Xworx. For years, he's worked in the trenches of helicopter development and fought against traditional rotorcraft shortcomings. “Rotorcraft design is probably the most challenging issue in all of aviation," he says. "I appreciate it's tough to take new technologies to market because of certification and regulatory costs. In addition, every new rotorcraft program throws a flurry of technical issues at you. I don't like how we still have acoustical signature helicopter noise issues and safety issues that haven't been fully addressed."

So, the veteran executive engineer has set his sights on developing a new type of aircraft, one that has yet to fly through certification, but has begun to turn rotors—and heads. "It's hard to predict what the future will hold for eVTOL aircraft because the market today doesn't exist," says Peryea. "It’s unlike the traditional helicopter industry, which is relatively mature and established with a history of demand. Still, we have plenty of studies that show that the potential market is huge in the billions of dollars.”

While it’s difficult to dismiss billions, Peryea seems to have set his stake on the e-VTOL frontier to not only chase dollars, but also his dreams. “Coming over to Jaunt allows me to come at rotorcraft from a new angle and deal with some of the problems associated with traditional rotorcraft,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong; traditional rotorcraft are a well-developed design, but they are designed to do one mission particularly well: to lift and hover. This limitation of traditional rotorcraft has been known in the industry for years. Most companies are now researching and developing compound (VTOL) aircraft. A compound VTOL aircraft like our Jaunt aircraft retains hover and low-speed capability, but it is designed to takeoff and land vertically, then fly (advance) when in the air. We’re also addressing some annoying characteristics associated with traditional rotorcraft (such as noise).”

From Farm to Flight

This discovery and development are what Peryea has been preparing for his whole life. “From an early age, I’ve always been interested in how things work,” he says. “I used to take things apart all the time; if something in the house broke, my mom always had me work on it. In fact, even today, I take things apart to understand how they work and function. (A favorite hobby is building custom drones in his home workshop.) Curiosity about technology has always been with me, and I also love creativity and innovation.”

Peryea and his eight siblings grew up on an upstate New York dairy farm near Canada. The Peryeas and their cows just happened to reside under a military flight path. “Twice a year, helicopters would fly from Fort Drum to Plattsburgh.” He says “as a kid, I’d look up in amazement. It always fascinated me as to how these machines operated in the air.” That fascination motivated the insatiably curious student to seek out aviation answers. “I’d go into our high school library, which was limited, and always try to find books on helicopters,” Peryea says. “Fortunately, our public library had more helicopter books. So, I learned about collective and cyclic pitch when I was a teen.” 

This research almost became a classic case of curiosity killing the cat. “I thought I was so educated that I attempted to build, while I was in high school, a jet-pulse helicopter. Fortunately, I didn’t have a lot of resources to continue the project, or it would have become quite dangerous. Knowing what I know now, it’s a good thing I couldn’t take things too far,” the older and wiser CTO now says.

The ambitious student went to Cornell University (then home to famous astrophysicist Carl Sagan) with physics, engineering, and helicopters on his mind. However, it was another college subject that grabbed his attention—his future wife, Ximena.  They were married in 1983 before moving to Ft. Worth. “She was from NYC, so she brought charm and culture to my life; it was farm boy meets city girl.” She was three years behind Peryea in college, and that gave the undergraduate physics major another reason to stay on campus and pursue a master's in aerospace engineering. “I loved studying physics, but I needed a more practical engineering degree for the job market,” he says. For part of his master’s thesis, the grad student built a set of rotor blades.

New Wife & Bell Life

With his 1982 master’s degree in hand, Peryea interviewed on the job market with Bell Helicopter and Boeing. “I loved what Bell was doing in the early ‘80s. They were doing tiltrotor design and a lot of rotorcraft flight tests,” he says. But Peryea took a job with Boeing in Philadelphia. “It was a short drive to see my sweetheart still in Cornell,” he says. When Ximena graduated they decided to move West. Her first choice was California, but Peryea suggested they split the difference and move to Texas; “Fortunately, Bell Helicopter Textron still wanted to hire me,” says Peryea. After the couple arrived in Fort Worth, Peryea began his work as a test engineer in aerodynamics. “We did a lot of wind tunnel testing back then,” he says. “We were also working with NASA on research projects and I eventually worked my way up to chief engineer over Bell’s military - programs, which included various programs like the V-22.”  After half a decade in that position, Peryea moved on to eventually become executive director of Bell’s X-Files-mysterious Xworx program, where Bell developed their newest, secret technologies. “That was a great time in my career because I was directing a lot of research on new materials and rotorcraft configurations,” he fondly recalls. 

From there, in 2012 the Peryeas moved to Quebec, Canada, where Peryea became vice president of engineering for Bell’s Mirabel facility. The Canadian talent and hospitality made this assignment a very enjoyable one.  They returned to Fort Worth a few years later for Peryea to take over as chief engineer for the Bell 525 program. “We really put that aircraft on a path to certification and resolved some remaining technical issues,” he says.

Electric Dream Flying Machine

In 2016, Peryea ended his decades-long career at Bell Helicopter and made a short-mileage, but big career move over to the aerospace structures business unit of Triumph Group Inc. in neighboring Arlington, Texas. He was VP of engineering, manufacturing engineering, and innovation until 2019. “We started looking at the eVTOL space when I was at Triumph,” he says. “I was allowed to form a small team to look at some electric-design concepts, but unfortunately Triumph was not in a position to move forward.” 

So, with Triumph’s blessing, Peryea co-founded Jaunt Air Mobility, his eVTOL entrant where he is developing his electric dream flying machine. Such an environmentally conscious “far-out” concept seems like something an aviating John Denver would have dreamed up—and sang about—at his Windstar Foundation. Yet, ten years back the technology simply did not exist to make such dreams a reality. Peryea says, “Back when I was running Bell’s Xworx organization, we looked at what it would take to develop an all-electric rotorcraft and we could never close a design solution. Battery performance wasn’t sufficient then and the weight of an empty aircraft exceeded the takeoff weight.” Peryea believes that recent advancements in battery and motor technologies makes it feasible to develop eVTOL aircraft today. “I was aware of the slow-rotor compound (SRC) technologies that were being worked on by Jay Carter at Carter Aviation Technologies. (Carter’s a technical consultant for Jaunt). It’s a marriage of battery and motor technologies with the SRC technologies that he was developing that made a commercially viable eVTOL aircraft you could certify.” Peryea also mentions that thermal plastic technology developed by his former employer, Triumph, now makes eVTOL manufacturing feasible.

Still, one wonders, even with advancing technology, can a relatively small startup realize such a large aviation dream? Won’t it take a big-boy OEM? “It’s actually easier (for Jaunt) because we, as a company, are more focused on a single product and single mission,” says Peryea. “We are highly motivated and aligned to do exactly what we are doing. The larger OEMs internally have a lot of competing interests spread over various commercial and military programs. Those product lines compete for the same dollars, so it can be a little more difficult to get the resources internally. Also, when the leadership of a large OEM changes, the strategic direction and priorities of the corporation can change. Typically, in a big organization, decisions can come slow and impact the speed of development.”

Recreational Recharging

Yes, Peryea has a need for speed, both in aircraft development and on the ski slopes away from his business. He enjoys his two grown sons (both engineers) pushing him to his personal limits on the ski slopes. (He jokes, “The three most dangerous words on the mountain are ‘Follow me Dad.’”) Yet, away from the Colorado slopes and away from his engineering teams at Jaunt, Peryea slows down. He says, “Everyone absolutely needs down time. The brain and the body have to recharge.” Frequently, the Cornell University alum does this by reading, but his leisure books are not the usual paperback bestsellers for the beach—unless that beach is overrun by Ivy League theoretical physicists. His two most recently read thrillers are The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom and The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age. “Fermi always used first principles to solve problems. That’s a tool I like using. When you go back to the most fundamental elements, you can really solve a lot of engineering problems,” notes Peryea.

Revitalizing Rotorcraft

Peryea believes that a fundamental problem afflicting today’s rotorcraft industry is that it doesn’t solve enough problems. He explains, “The rotorcraft community is relatively small and the cycles of learning are a real problem. Back in the 1960s, there were many new aircraft programs that started across the spectrum, so many aviation engineers had a lot of programs to work on throughout their career. They had a lot of opportunities to learn and develop new technologies. Today, they may work on two programs; the cycles of learning are not there.” Peryea believes that Jaunt Air Mobility is helping to usher in a revolution that will revitalize rotorcraft and the industry at large. “I see the opportunity as being broader than opportunities for Jaunt Air Mobility. A new generation of engineers will be working in this new (eVTOL) space. It’s going to require a lot of new technology for all-electric, autonomous aircraft to fly. It’s going to require batteries, flight controllers, and sensor technology for example. It’s an exciting opportunity for new engineers coming up. Traditional aircraft haven’t radically changed, except for their avionics. Helicopters still look like helicopters. Fixed-wings still look like airplanes. eVTOL is a new type of aircraft in a new aviation sector and industry. That’s going to create a lot of exciting opportunities,” says the technology executive excitedly with no love-and-hate mixed feelings. 

eVTOL is a rotorcraft design that Peryea definitely loves.