Feature left bracketright bracket Winter 2022

Fly the Greener Skies

Herman Wiegman ’88 and Nathan Wiegman ’15 help chart the course of electrical flight.

Herman and Nathan Wiegman

Nathan Wiegman '15, left, and Herman Wiegman '88

Herman Wiegman ’88 has the air of a man living his purpose—and who can’t quite believe his good fortune. “Holy smokes,” he marvels, as he walks beneath the wing of the electric vertical aircraft he helped invent and develop for the market. 

To be sure, the ALIA-250 is a sight to behold: inspired by the shape and attributes of the Arctic tern, the gleaming white aircraft features a carbon-fiber skin, a swooping wingspan of 50 feet, and four vertical-lift rotors. But its greatest claim to fame is what’s under the hood … or rather, what is not. Eschewing a combustion engine in favor of an electric propulsion system, the ALIA aircraft boasts a 250-nautical-mile range on a single charge, bringing substantial electrical flight closer to reality. For Wiegman and his son, Nathan Wiegman ’15, it’s already been the journey of a lifetime.

Taking Their Tern

The scene is familiar: A helicopter lands on the roof of a city hospital, carrying a critical organ transplant as cargo. The organ is delivered just in time and a patient’s life is saved. 

But at what environmental cost? 

Herman and Nate Wiegman

The Wiegmans work on Beta’s high-capacity lithium-ion batteries.

“If you save the patient but kill the planet, that doesn’t make much sense,” admits Wiegman.

However, a viable and environmentally sound alternative to a traditional gas-powered helicopter would have to check two boxes: 1. It must represent a significant reduction in emissions. 2. It must be able to take off vertically in an urban environment and then transition to long-range flight mode. With the challenge set, entrepreneur and engineer Kyle Clark founded BETA Technologies and enlisted Wiegman and others to help work toward a solution—an aircraft that could both deliver on the mission and do so with zero emissions.

BETA is hardly the first engineering company to tackle an electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. But as they considered a variety of designs, the team leaned heavily on what has now become a mantra for BETA—simplicity. The team brings extensive experience in electric propulsion and energy storage.This internal know-how proved to be a game changer.

“Other innovators were working with articulating motors, for example, which can do all kinds of crazy things,” explains Wiegman. “But as a pilot, you think, ‘If there is a component failure, it would be best if it pointed in just one direction.” In time, Wiegman earned his pilot’s license, and the team soon discovered that—by developing a culture of flight throughout their new company—they could imbue their team with a practical edge. 

“Imagine driving a car designed by people who’ve never driven one—it’s nonsensical,” says Wiegman. As BETA Technologies grew from a handful of employees to more than 300, the company began offering free flight instruction to any interested employee, helping the team internalize the real-world conditions pilots experience in the air and translate that knowledge to informed design. Today, the vast majority of BETA’s employees hold some type of pilot’s license (fixed wing, rotorcraft, or other) or are in training to do so.

In facing the basic problem of achieving flight with a battery-powered plane, the BETA team turned to biomimicry—letting the natural world inform a design built for endurance. 

“The Arctic tern flies the longest distance of any bird in the world, so when we were designing our aircraft, we ended up with very similar shapes and characteristics,” says Wiegman. “Just as the tern minimizes its weight with hollow bones, we really cored out our aircraft. We also built it out of carbon fiber, minimizing the layers so it would be just the right strength.”

The Arctic tern flies the longest distance of any bird in the world, so when we were designing our aircraft, we ended up with very similar shapes and characteristics.

Herman Wiegman

Despite its fantastically engineered exterior, ALIA is dependent upon the capacity of its batteries for performance and range. And Wiegman is the first to admit, batteries are often the weakest link for any electric vehicle. “Energy storage tends to be the least technically mature element,” he says. “Motors have been around for 150 years, and we’ve had vehicles for decades, but batteries like lithium-ion—they’re only a few years old, and that’s the last element we need to make electric vehicles competitive.”

Fortunately, energy storage is Wiegman’s area of expertise—and at BETA, he has an especially close right-hand man on his team: his son, Nathan. A fellow WPI grad, Nathan was well qualified to join the BETA team in the critical role of battery safety specialist. 

Together, the BETA team harnessed lithium-ion technology to give the ALIA a range of 250 nautical miles, nearly 100 more than most electric flight prototypes. And they have confidence that in just a few years, the next generation of batteries will increase that range considerably, a critical breakthrough for a company looking to replace traditional flight.

“Just like electric cars enable something entirely new, electric aviation will do the same,” says Herman.

Beta Technologies

With a crackerjack team of pilots and engineers, BETA has brought their ALIA aircraft from concept to testing phase in just three years. And as the saying goes, “If you build it, they will come.” In May 2021, BETA announced $368 million in funding led by Fidelity Investments and Amazon’s Climate Fund, increasing the company’s valuation to $1.4 billion.

According to Herman, this injection of capital will allow BETA to refine its aircraft’s electric propulsion system and invest in an in-house manufacturing facility, both critical steps in bringing ALIA from an experimental aircraft to a product on the market. “For companies like Fidelity and Amazon to invest in what we’re building is a real honor,” he says.

Recently, thanks to the company’s promise of lower CO2 emissions and proof of concept, BETA has secured purchase commitments from United Therapeutics, UPS, and Blade, an “urban air mobility” aviation company. With overwhelming interest from a variety of sectors, it’s clear that Wiegman’s and Clark’s dream of meaningful electrical flight finally has liftoff. 

“I feel I’m a participant in the solution, rather than just a consumer of other people’s solutions,” says the elder Wiegman. “For an engineer, it’s a little like watching your child grow up and make a real impact in the world.” 

Charting the Course

In retrospect, Herman Wiegman’s entire career seems to have pointed to this singular achievement; however, it was not always so obvious that this would be his destination.

“I was a tinkerer,” Wiegman admits of his younger self. “Recording Casey Kasem on my dad’s tape deck so I could stitch songs together, sticking screwdrivers into motors to see how they worked—anything to explore the technology.” As with many would-be engineers, Wiegman found himself most at home in high school STEM classes, eventually setting his sights on WPI as a springboard to an engineering career. With the help of (now retired) WPI Professor Alexander Emanuel, Wiegman discovered the niche that would become his life’s work: power electronics and energy systems. 

As Wiegman completed his senior year at WPI, graduating with a degree in electrical engineering, Emanuel offered him an introduction to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he would eventually earn his doctorate and participate in a hybrid vehicle challenge. “No one wanted to handle the battery in the hybrid system,” he recalls. “I just thought it was another great opportunity to take stuff apart, make it better, and better understand the risks involved.” In part, his experience in the challenge solidified his professional track as an energy-storage expert specializing in electric transport.

He said, ‘Hey, Herm, you want to do something a little crazy?’ Knowing Kyle, I had to ask, ‘Does it involve waterskiing on Lake Champlain?’ But nope—he wanted to electrify flight.

Herman Wiegman

Wiegman’s professional life continued at General Electric’s Global Research Center (another opportunity suggested by Emanuel), where he spent the next several decades of his career. 

“I became the battery-integration and energy-storage specialist at GE, working with hybrid vehicles, aircraft, wind turbines, and medical devices. For 20 years, I was happily putting batteries into industrial products. Our lives were comfortable, the kids were in college, and I thought I would continue on into retirement,” Wiegman explains. “And then I got a surprise phone call.” 

The call came in 2016 from Clark, a fellow engineer and entrepreneur from Vermont who occasionally called on Wiegman for energy storage efforts. But this call was different, as Clark had much higher stakes in mind. 

“He said, ‘Hey, Herm, you want to do something a little crazy?’” recalls Wiegman. “Knowing Kyle, I had to ask, ‘Does it involve waterskiing on Lake Champlain?’ But nope—he wanted to electrify flight.” Wiegman raises his eyebrows at the memory. “I told my wife I’d try this on the side, but I might also divert my 20-year career. What an opportunity!”

And divert he did. After eight months of moonlighting with Clark and securing an increasing amount of research projects, Wiegman knew he was headed for a major decision. He resigned from GE and began commuting to BETA’s new headquarters at the airport in South Burlington, Vt. 

During that time, he was making the long drive from his house in Niskayuna, N.Y. In 2016, Wiegman officially moved his family to South Burlington and stepped into a full-time role at BETA—as well as a new life as a pioneer in electric flight.

For Wiegman, only one thing could make this transition dreamier than it already was: to make aviation history with his son and fellow engineer by his side. That, too, could be arranged.

Little Wing

It was clear early in Nathan Wiegman’s life that he had inherited his father’s sense of curiosity. “In fourth grade, Nathan and his buddies built these desktop trebuchets to launch marbles across the classroom,” Herman recalls. “And in middle school, they graduated to two-meter-long throwing arms that could hurl stuff across the football field.” Needless to say, he figured he had a next-generation engineer on his hands.

Nate helicopter

Nate Wiegman flies Beta’s training helicopter over Burlington, Vt.

Nathan also remembers his early penchant for mechanics, and credits his father for cultivating his interest. “Very early on, my father instilled in me the tinkering mindset,” says Nathan. “My first vehicle was a motorcycle that came in various cardboard boxes.” The two worked together to assemble the bike, and in the years that followed, they tore out the combustion engine, replacing it with an electric golf cart motor and battery.

The motorcycle project represents just one in a long line of engineering endeavors the father-son duo tackled through the years, playing no small role in Nathan’s love for mechanics and electrical systems. So, when it came time to select a college, his father’s alma mater was naturally under consideration. Nathan says he was sold after his first campus visit and tour. And once Nathan became a student, the parallels in their academic journeys would run closer than they could have expected.

While in his junior year at WPI, Nathan––majoring in electrical & computer engineering––sent his father a text asking for help with a power electronics homework assignment. Something about the project struck Herman as strangely familiar. “I’m looking at the assignment on my phone, noting the handwriting, characters, and notation, and I realized I’d seen this before,” he said. In fact, the assignment was from Emanuel. “Here I was, helping my son with homework, assigned by the same professor!”

Their lives continued to run in parallel tracks when Nathan was ready to launch his engineering career. Following a teaching stint in China’s Zhejiang Province, Nathan joined BETA’s battery team, once again working side-by-side with his father. For many, the prospect of a parent as a coworker might be less than ideal—but not for the Wiegmans. 

“Someone in our company asked Nate what it’s like to work with his dad, and he said, ‘What do you mean? We’ve been doing projects together for the past 20 years,’” recalls Herman. “I guess we may have upped the ante, though.”

That’s not to say that Herman is any less grateful for the privilege of having his son by his side. “How many father-son teams get the chance to work together at this level?” he says. “We’re both very dedicated to moving the needle on a global scale, which is a huge opportunity and responsibility.” 

How many father-son teams get the chance to work together at this level? We’re both very dedicated to moving the needle on a global scale, which is a huge opportunity and responsibility.

Herman Wiegman

There’s little doubt that the Wiegmans and the BETA team will, in fact, move the needle. Within the next few years, BETA expects to receive FAA certification, allowing ALIA to be flown commercially. The company’s long-term plans include an autonomous model, as well as constructing a nationwide recharging infrastructure, and pilot training programs.

Make no mistake about it, the ALIA aircraft is coming to an airport, hospital, or distribution center near you. And while Herman is decidedly proud of the role he’s playing in electric flight, he remains awestruck that he has a seat at the table. “I consider it such a privilege to be among a group of engineers who can say, ‘Our designs, our prototypes, our testing—these could actually change the world.’”

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