Reserve Airman makes history with first USAF-piloted eVTOL vehicle flight

  • Published
  • By Jamal Sutter
  • 413th Flight Test Group Public Affairs

Just south of his home in Brooklyn, New York, a young Terrence McKenna spent much of his childhood in Prospect Park tossing around wooden gliders and flying remote-controlled airplanes, each aircraft more complex and capable than the last.

By the early 2000s, McKenna came across an ad for flying lessons which offered ground school at an office building near his high school in the city. In the 16-year-old’s mind, he was compelled by the excitement and adventure offered by flying an airplane before being 18, the legal driving age in New York. With full support from his family, the future career pilot was about to embark on his first of many aviation milestones.

Fast forward to present day, now a captain in the Air Force Reserve, Terrence McKenna has found himself involved in another momentous occasion, as he successfully flew the first U.S. Air Force-operated flight of an electric vertical takeoff and landing, or eVTOL, aircraft.

The event, which took place December of 2021 in Palo Alto, California, was a collaboration of efforts between AFWERX Agility Prime—the Air Force’s electric aircraft and advanced air mobility program—and Kittyhawk, a commercial industry corporation founded to develop and explore eVTOL aircraft.

AFWERX, referred to as the innovation arm of the Department of the Air Force, launched in July of 2017 with a mission of partnering with commercial technology companies to rapidly field high-value commercial and military capabilities.

“[The first Air Force eVTOL flight] was a real embodiment of all of the tenets and ethos of Agility Prime. It demonstrated the collaborative potential of these different groups when they come together,” said McKenna, the test and experimentation lead for Agility Prime and a C-5 and T-38 pilot with the 370th Flight Test Squadron (FLTS), an Air Force Reserve Command unit out of Edwards Air Force Base, California.

With Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. recognizing the need and pushing for more innovative ways of conducting business, research and development of aviation platforms like Kittyhawk’s eVTOL aircraft, the Heaviside, is a necessary line of effort to help the nation maintain air superiority.

According to McKenna, an eVTOL vehicle could be used in a number of ways within the military that are complementary to the envisioned civilian use-cases, including search and rescue, supplies and personnel transport, and logistics support across the DoD. The Heaviside in particular, being remotely piloted and around the size of a small electric car, would be very useful in areas not accessible to larger vehicles or aircraft.

“If there are new ways of flying and if those new ways of flying help us win the fight, then we need to make sure we understand those technologies and we understand what it might look like for our Airmen to operate those technologies,” said Col. Nathan Diller, AFWERX director. “Having an Airman actually start to understand what it looks like to operate these systems is really key in that overall strategy of making sure that we, as the Air Force, are staying in absolutely the leading edge of aerospace technologies.”

Leading up to flying the aircraft for AFWERX, McKenna said he spent several weeks reviewing systems documents, conducting simulation work, discussing procedures and completing other training before operating the aircraft. But the prerequisites that made him qualified to operate the eVTOL platform are something that took a career’s worth of knowledge and experience to obtain.

McKenna earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and holds a fixed wing multi-engine, single-engine commercial/instrument, seaplane, helicopter, and remote pilot's license. After MIT, he stayed in the Boston area where he joined Aurora Flight Sciences to help stand up the research and development center there and worked for seven years on the development of advanced aviation-based artificial intelligence (AI) as well as novel aircraft designs and control methodologies—both manned and unmanned.

Despite all of his hands-on involvement with technical testing and development in regular support of U.S. government and DoD programs, McKenna felt a calling to join service members with whom he respected, admired and worked with regularly. Working with recruiters and units in the New England region, he found a home with the 337th Airlift Squadron out of Westover Air Reserve Base, Massachusetts, and joined the Air Force Reserve in 2014 at the age of 27.

“Joining the 337th AS felt like coming home to an extended family,” McKenna said. “It was close-knit and had such a long and rich lineage with great personalities that kept the squadron stories and traditions alive. There was such great mentorship and support from each member of the unit. After that initial interview and [unit training assembly], it all just fell into place for me.”

With the 337th AS, he flew the C-5 in worldwide operations. While there, he took part in their transition from the C-5A/B Galaxy models to the C-5M Super Galaxy, which exposed him to weapons systems upgrades and integration of new technologies into Air Force flying units. Appreciative of his time there, McKenna said he credits the 337th AS with being a major catapult to everything else that followed in his military career.

By 2019, McKenna found a new home with the 370th FLTS through which he attended test-specific T-38 training at Randolph and Edwards AFBs. Currently as the director of the 370th FLTS’s futures cell, McKenna works hand-in-hand with many Edwards AFB units, including the innovation office, to test and develop cutting edge aviation technologies such as AI and eVTOL aircraft. In this role, he also helps determine how to best utilize Air Force Reserve talent to supplement active-duty innovation and other technological-advancement initiatives. He works with the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards and other units doing T-38 test support and supports the X-62A Variable Stability In-flight Simulator Test Aircraft upgrade program—a highly modified F-16D Block 30. All of that plus his civilian experience helping develop autonomous aerial solutions with the Air Force Research Lab, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and NASA made him the perfect fit for Agility Prime and the eVTOL mission.

“This work is right in my wheelhouse,” McKenna said. “It’s industry support. It’s interacting with industry in a different way. It’s testing technology in a different way, and it builds on all of the technologies that I had been developing—for example, autonomy, fly-by wire and triplex redundant control systems; all of these directly support making these technologies like eVTOL aircraft a reality.”

McKenna started working with AFWERX in 2019. Diller said he decided to bring him on board after hearing about him while doing flight test work at Edwards AFB. Diller and the 370th FLTS’s commander, Lt. Col. John Mikal, were roommates at the Air Force Academy. While catching up, they discussed the potential for 370th FLTS pilots to gain additional breadth in flight test within AFWERX, and McKenna’s name came up as a prime candidate.

As the test and experimentation lead for Agility Prime, McKenna must understand the current capabilities of and risks associated with available hardware. It’s also up to him to assess opportunities and logistics for conducting testing, such as what locations are ideal and what other organizations need to be involved.

“He’s the right guy for [the Agility Prime] mission at the right time,” Mikal said. “I don’t know of [another] person in the 370th FLTS, or anybody else [for that matter], that could step in and do the Agility Prime test and experimentation job. He’s doing a fantastic job, and I hear the same from everybody who works with him.”

The coordination between McKenna, the 370th FLTS and AFWERX is unique in many ways. First, and perhaps most obvious, is that the 370th FLTS is a reserve unit, while AFWERX is an active-duty entity. Second, the 370th FLTS is based in California, and AFWERX does a majority of its business out of Washington, D.C., and Ohio. With McKenna being a traditional reservist, he’s been placed on extended active duty operational support orders to accomplish his job with AFWERX whenever and wherever he’s needed, with flexibility to travel to the west coast for duty at the 370th FLTS.

“I see the squadron as being able to host … have a place for talent to reside and then, to go out and do great things for the U.S. Air Force,” Mikal said. “From my take, it’s this kind of an innovative approach to how [traditional reservists] are utilized—that they reside in the 370th FLTS for the good of both the Air Force Materiel Command and Air Force Reserve Command missions, but it’s not solely for the 370th FLTS.”

McKenna said he fully supports Mikal’s vision for the unit and furthered the idea of Air Force Reserve personnel, with their civilian experience, being crucial to teaming with commercial industry and advancing technology.

“There’s so much more that’s happening now by bringing in folks from all over the Air Force Reserve community to support test in various ways,” he said. “It’s great to see such a fruitful and collaborative relationship between active-duty Air Force, our Reserve Citizen Airmen and our industry partners. The potential for what these teams can do is limitless.”

Once eVTOL aircraft like Heaviside are fully certified, they could be brought into the force for regular operations. According to McKenna, some of Agility Prime’s next steps include developing training plans and syllabi for eVTOL aircraft.

Personally though, for the Brooklyn-native, he said he hopes to continue to support AFWERX and is excited for what’s to come. He relishes the community and mutual support of his squadron, credits his unit with making these milestones possible and aims for a long career of taking care of business with his 370th FLTS teammates. And behind it all, no matter what opportunity arises, he’ll always be a pilot.

“My heart is in the cockpit, and I love the flying that I’m doing,” he said. “Exploring the intersection between flight operations and engineering and evaluating how I bring my skills and experience to best support the mission is what keeps me going.”

During the process of being interviewed for this story, McKenna said he realized how things came full circle for him. Going back to confirm details of yesteryear, he was able to reflect on the day he pitched the idea of taking flying lessons to his family and said the sensation he got flying the Heaviside is no different from flying the Cessna 172 for the first time all those years ago.

“It felt the same, in terms of excitement for new things, which is exactly how it should feel throughout your entire career,” he said. “You should be able to approach every new challenge and every new opportunity with that level of eagerness. And the fact that it did feel the same as it did back when I started flying as a teenager, means we’re doing the right thing.”