A unique event took place in Coventry City Centre between April 25th and May 14th. The public were invited to not only venture close to the future of air flight, but even interact with and touch it. Entry was free.

The inspiration behind this futuristic enterprise is Ricky Sandhu, Founder and Executive Chairman of Urban-Air Port (UAP). He said, “We had an overwhelmingly positive response from both the eVTOL industry and the general public. The event was extremely encouraging and rewarding.”

UAP’s ‘Air-One’ is a 1,700 sq m prefabricated vertiport designed for both rapid assembly and disassembly. This was the first time, anywhere in the world, such a design had been constructed. Once completed, it was then opened to the public.

Below is Part 1 of an in-depth interview with Sandhu about the event.

Ricky Sandhu

First, watch a 16’ video that shows you around the ‘Air One’ Urban-Air Port:

https://www.facebook.com/livecoventry/videos/1171718893650900/

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Chris Stonor asks the questions.

When was the Coventry event first conceived?

I had been working in the Urban Air Mobility (UAM) sector since 2017 and formed a vision of the ‘Air One’ ground infrastructure required for eVTOLs.

In 2020, I reached out to Coventry University where they have two major departments, The National Transport Design Centre and the Institute for Future Transport and Cities. I knew the guys there as we had worked on previous projects and asked them if they wanted to join our bid for a financial award competition from the UK Research and Innovation’s Future Flight Challenge. They said yes and suggested we should construct the ‘Air One’ in the centre of Coventry. That’s when I was introduced to the Coventry City Council. At our very first meeting the Council said “absolutely yes”. They were very enthusiastic about the idea.

Then, after putting forward our bid, in January 2021, we were selected as a winner and awarded a UKP1.2 million grant. The goal was not only to create, develop and build the first ‘Air One’ Urban-Air Port, but turn the completed infrastructure into a major event where the public could come and view it. The Coventry Westminster car park was chosen as the location.

How long did it take you to construct the Air One?

It took us 11 weeks.

What were some of the challenges faced?

Building any infrastructure in a city is never easy as there can be many complications. For example, negotiating and procuring the actual site and then accessing it, while working alongside local developers and the Council, on such an ambitious programme never before conceived.

Creating a flat plane over a car park that is not flat at all, where we were not allowed to penetrate the surface. Then we wanted off-grid hydrogen-power, so had to work with local authorities and services to achieve this. On top of all this, we suffered not one but two major storms (Eunice and Franklin). But we had a great team behind us including Sir Robert McAlpine. A huge amount of work went on behind the scenes.

With the experience gained, could you shorten the Air One construction time in the future?

Oh yes, by 50 percent or more. We learned a lot of lessons and gained many insights from the first build. Five weeks or less is quite possible.

The Hyundai Supernal On Display

How did you feel leading up to the big day and the opening of ‘Air One?’

I had been travelling daily to and from the site with members of the team, so knew how the construction had gone. The team was gelling nicely, there were hundreds of people working together to pull it off. We had overcome the storms and felt comfortable with the end product. On launch day we drove up from London. We stopped off at two different motorway service stations. Obviously, we felt a bit nervous. It was a big day (laughs). What I remember of the journey is that I was queuing for a coffee at 6am and realised how poor our existing motorway infrastructure can be. From the furniture and brand selection to the catering… It dawned on me that our ‘Air One’ business model could be replicated in other areas of transport services.

How did you sleep the night before?

I have an amazing team, so they take on a fair amount of the stress-load. Leading up to the day, I began each morning with a triple shot flat white, so to be suitably fuelled. I did a few more additional walks around my local Regent’s Park. So, when I reached ‘Air One’ on April 25th, I felt good. It was rather like arranging a birthday party. You’ve sent out the invitations, but have no idea whether your guests will indeed turn up!

Although, we did know how many of the public had booked in advance. We also knew the number of VIPs coming. Still, you are feeling a bit nervous. On that first day over 400 people attended. The media were everywhere. It was an incredible time.

Which media outlets attended?

A number of national newspapers: The Guardian, The Independent, The Times and The Mail. Various broadcasters including: BBC News, ITV, SKY, LBC and international broadcasters Globo TV from Brazil, TF1 and Agence France-Presse (AFP). From a business perspective a journalist from the FT received a private tour and Bloomberg were also in attendance. We received interest from local media including BBC Coventry & Warwickshire Radio and the Coventry Observer. Fully Charged, the online broadcaster, focusing on electric vehicles and renewable energy also attended to film a special on EVs and charging at ‘Air One’ and our zero-emission focus.

How many people visited the event over the three weeks?

15,000 people came along. This was above expectation. Because of this response, we had to unlock more tickets, as the initial ones were sold out. We kept our various VIP private events and blocked off certain time slots of ‘Air One’, but due to the response we had to add further tours.

Unfortunately, as part of the protocol, we couldn’t stay open during the evening, so were extremely busy throughout each day from the 9am opening to closing time around 6pm.

For every tour there was a line of people waiting. On the final day (Saturday, May 14th), a long queue formed outside before the opening. It went all the way around the block. The public were pouring in all day of all ages from young children to the elderly. 1,200 attended just on that last Saturday.

Did they come from overseas?

During those three weeks, people were flying in from all over the world to visit. For our VIP events they came from North and South America, Mexico, Brazil, Europe, Asia, Ghana, Saudi Arabia, the Middle East. There were members of the world’s military and airport management. It was pretty massive. There could have been more if the event had not clashed with the holy month of Ramadan and travelling from China and Hong Kong remains difficult. So, yes, there was a major global attendance.   

Who were some of these VIPs?

All the leading eVTOL companies were represented from Airbus, Volocopter and Wisk to Lilium, Vertical Aerospace, Supernal, Eve, Archer etc.. We had a huge and positive industry response from Evtol OEMs to operators including Heathrow, Luton, Munich Airport International and Frankfurt to name just a few.

What aspects of the event did the public enjoy the most?

Primarily two things. Watching the Malloy Aeronautics T150 drone carrying a 70kg payload take-off from the infrastructure, blew people’s minds. This was the first time a drone of its size had flown in such a dense and built-up UK urban environment. There were over 100 successful flights. The public were also blown away by our working FATO (final approach and take-off) elevating platform technology.

The Malloy Aeronautics T150 Drone in Flight

Watching some people’s faces on entering ‘Air One’, some beginning rather sceptical and scrunched up, then only to see their expression change to one of a curiosity, joy and excitement demeanour as they left, having thoroughly enjoyed themselves and after understanding the benefits of the ‘Air One’ concept. That was really special to see.

Can you offer an example?

A colleague spoke to an elderly man who had arrived with his son, rather grumpy and dubious about the event, only to completely change his tune after an hour. When my colleague pointed me out in the cafe, the man bounded up and said, “This is absolutely fantastic. I am amazed. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

Others I spoke to were very proud it was being held in Coventry and didn’t want ‘Air One’ to leave. Some even became tearful. Words and phrases like “blown away”, “bowled over”, “fantastic” and “amazing” were common-place. So, yes, it was an incredible three weeks. People were absolutely chuffed that they could not only get tantalisingly close to the future, but even touch it.

(Pics: Urban-Air Port)

(The second part of this interview will be published next week)