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Hexa ultralight aircraft
Lift’s semi-autonomous Hexa ultralight aircraft is designed for recreational outings. (Lift Aircraft via YouTube)

A startup created by Matt Chasen, the founder of the uShip online shipping marketplace, aims to sell rides on electric-powered aircraft that are so simple to operate that tourists can take them out for a spin.

Lift Aircraft is based in Austin, Texas, but Chasen told GeekWire that Seattle is high on the list of places where the company’s Hexa ultralights could have their first outings.

“Seattle is one of the pioneering cities in aerospace and aviation,” said Chasen, who stepped down from his role as Austin-based uShip’s CEO in 2016.

Over the past couple of years, Chasen has been working on a number of entrepreneurial ventures, including Lift. The company has been through a “typical-size seed round,” and it’s gearing up to select its first flight location and get ready for a more substantial Series A funding round, he said.

Lift’s Hexa is an electric-powered, vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft, or eVTOL aircraft, but it’s not meant to take on the sorts of urban air-taxi tasks targeted by bigger companies such as Boeing, Airbus and Uber.

Instead, the 18-propeller, 432-pound, one-seat Hexa will be rented out for eight- to 15-minute flights in scenic and uncongested areas near major metro areas, tourist destinations and entertainment hubs. Lift says it qualifies as a “powered ultralight” under the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules, which means a pilot’s license is not required.

Flights could range as high as 1,200 feet, depending on the locale, and the semi-autonomous flight control system is designed to be operated safely with a joystick. Like other ultralights, the Hexa will be limited to a maximum airspeed of 63 mph.

The craft is equipped with several safety measures, including a ballistic parachute that would be deployed autonomously in the event of an emergency, air-cushioned floats for water landings, and a remote-control system that makes it possible for a trained pilot to fly the plane from a distance.

Lift’s FAQ says that anyone over the age of 18 who’s shorter than 6-foot-5 and weighs no more than 250 pounds should be able to fly after a training session in a virtual-reality simulator.

The startup has eight full-time employees, supplemented by “a lot of agencies” and consultants, including engineers and designers in Hungary, Chasen said.

Chasen flew the production-design Hexa for the first time last month. “It was an absolutely thrilling experience,” he recalled in a news release. “I think it will be the most exciting thing that most people do in their entire lives.”

Starting today, Lift will let people make advance flight reservations in 25 U.S. cities. The initial flight centers will be selected based on anticipated demand. Flights are priced at $249, but for a limited time, customers who follow through on their advance reservations can get their first flight for $149.

Chasen said the first flight center would probably go into operation sometime during the second half of next year, with the potential for opening two more locations by the end of 2019.

As a former Boeing engineer, Chasen is rooting for Seattle to be one of the early adopters. “I could envision a Lift location right from a pier on the Seattle waterfront,” he said.

Although the Hexa’s ultralight status reduces the regulatory burden from the FAA’s perspective, Lift’s tourist operation would still have to comply with local regulations on safety and noise. “They’re not whisper-quiet,” Chasen acknowledged.

Once Lift builds up experience with its fixed-site operations, the company just might branch out into point-to-point travel.

“I’m excited about Seattle because we think there are a lot of recreational opportunities that we can also leverage into a transportation service when we’re ready for that,” Chasen said. “We expect to do that in a few years.”

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