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Silicon Valley is finally making flying cars—and this guy bought one of the first

Promotional footage of Pivotal’s flying vehicle shows it soaring through the air in California. | Source: Courtesy Pivotal

Silicon Valley is finally making flying cars—and this guy bought one of the first

From 500 feet in the air, a hovering aircraft the size of a compact car charts its course along the pastoral landscape of Point Reyes, from the headwaters of Tomales Bay through green hills dotted with cows to the Nicasio Reservoir and back.

In a trip that takes just under 20 minutes, the vessel descends back to the ground, spitting chunks of dead grass below eight whirring propellers. From the cockpit steps 26-year-old San Franciscan Tina Tavakolian. She doesn’t have a pilot’s license, and when she removes her helmet, locks of brown hair fall over a pair of Prada sunglasses.

“You can see so much more than you’d expect,” Tavakolian said. “There’s all sorts of cool stuff.” 

Tavakolian is a firmware engineer for Pivotal, a tech company out of Silicon Valley that has been quietly producing electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft—aka flying cars—for the last decade. This was her longest flight in the “BlackFly,” the company’s first personal-use vessel. 

Tina Tavakolian, 26, takes off and returns to Love Field in Point Reyes Station after a roughly 20-minute flight to the Nicasio Reservoir and back. | Source: Sam Mondros/The Standard

Last June, around 10 prototypes were purchased by early access buyers. Pivotal wouldn’t say who bought them but alluded to celebrity clients. The company has done a handful of flights in Point Reyes, drawing crowds of local firemen and second homeowners alike. Now it plans to list its first model for the general public to buy, the Helix, later this year at $190,000 a pop—the cost of roughly two Tesla Cybertrucks.

Pivotal’s machines symbolize either a bold future in flying cars or another new toy in the growing cache of wealthy locals, depending on who you ask. While a vehicle that travels 62 miles per hour and competes with no traffic may present an attractive alternative to the car for those willing to shell out the cash, with a battery life of about 20 minutes and a recharge time of 90 minutes, commuters hoping to beat rush-hour traffic shouldn’t hold their breath. 

But weighing just 348 pounds, the electric vehicle is a fraction of any car’s weight and costs less than a candy bar to charge. And though the BlackFly may look anachronistic in Point Reyes, in the garage of its most seasoned flier, it sits beside sawhorses, two-by-fours and other at-home construction tools. 

Tucked in the valleys of Washington’s Cascades, the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office started receiving calls about UFOs and Chinese spy planes when Tim Lum first took his BlackFly for joyrides. Jocund and spry, Lum has clocked around 400 take-offs and landings from his home in Twisp. “That’s a very important rate,” he added. 

While some of Lum’s neighbors have waltzed up to his 40-acre property to see what the hype is all about, others in the community have been less receptive. People have made a fuss about the noise the BlackFly emits, with some comparing it to the sound of a dentist’s drill or “10 million hornets.”

Meanwhile, in Point Reyes, where residents are infamously conservative about their views and air tour rules, the flying car prototypes are already receiving a chilly reception.


Lum keeps the vessel in his stripped-down garage, where his 2003 Honda CR-V used to sit before it was stolen, he said. Now, his Tesla Model Y charges outside the garage to make space for the BlackFly.

“It’s all energy efficient at this point,” he said. “I considered getting a small turbine helicopter, but the operation cost would be around $100 an hour whereas it’s about 50 cents a charge.”

A 61-year-old retired veteran, Lum made his living jumping out of military aircrafts rescuing people for the Air Force and has served in countless deployments from the Horn of Africa to Afghanistan. Bored during the pandemic, Lum began searching for an alternative to his paragliding hobby that would shed the heavy equipment and long walks to a launch point but was less squirrely and expensive than a helicopter.

“I came across a video of Marcus showing this aircraft, and it looked so fake, it had to be real,” the pararescue specialist said, referring to the BlackFly’s creator, Marcus Leng. “Ever since I was a kid, I always had my head in the clouds.”

A person wearing a helmet with a mounted camera and headset sits in a black glider cockpit marked with "TL39." The background shows a hilly, scenic sunset.
Tim Lum is one of just a few to get early access to the BlackFly. | Source: Courtesy Tim Lum

The single joystick controls, he added, make the experience as natural as riding a bike.

“There’s something about getting into it, I really do feel connected to it,” Lum said. “As you crawl in your harness, it feels like part of me, so I don’t even know when I’m doing the controls.”

Lum is Pivotal’s unicorn—an unofficial mascot who has been on thousands of military flights, yet doesn’t have his general aviation license. Lum, who could not disclose what he paid for his BlackFly because of an NDA, could champion the aircraft and appeal to the average consumer—which, as it turns out, tends to be white men over 50, the company reluctantly admits. 

Innovation takes flight

In the rapidly growing world of flying cars, Pivotal has established itself as a flagship company. It has beaten other flying car models to the market in the United States and established a blossoming relationship with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, leasing a handful of prototypes and simulators to gauge their use by the military. 

Pivotal’s headquarters are in a small office on the aptly named Corporation Way in Palo Alto, just a block away from Wisk Aero, which manufactures electric air taxi prototypes. Pivotal is composed of a motley crew of moguls, International Space Station alums and inventors who have charted paths in the tech and engineering spaces. 

Leng, the mind behind the BlackFly, is an inventor who made his fortune engineering the perfect memory foam for office chairs, which allowed him to retire in his 30s and pursue loftier inventions. 

“I think we’ve all had dreams of complete three-dimensional freedom,” Leng said in a promotional video

The image shows a flying machine resembling a large, black drone with eight rotating propellers, carrying a person wearing a helmet. It hovers low over grass with trees in the background.
Marcus Leng, the inventor of the BlackFly, flies the original prototype at his home outside Toronto in October 2011. | Source: Courtesy Pivotal

Leng’s Toronto house basically served as Pivtoal’s factory during its prototype era in the late 2000s. After three years of engineering and one test run, he decided to show off his new toy to his neighbors. One afternoon in the fall of 2011, Leng hovered four feet from the ground before he set course for the crowd and gunned it to execute a skidding stop in front of them. But as he approached, the vessel’s wing clipped his lawn. 

“Life slowed down and I thought, ‘Shit, this is not going to end well,’” he said. But the vehicle stayed steady, allowing Leng to correct course before returning to the ground. While his lawn was marred with a 30-foot scratch, Leng, the homemade aircraft, and his peers were unscathed.

“I remember landing and going, ‘Oh my God, this technology is going to work,” he said.

Leng’s epic hare-brained launch was the first time any human manned a flying vehicle such as this. 

Rules and regulations

Permit-wise, Pivotal’s vehicles fall under the same regulatory category as hang gliders and are prohibited from flying in airspaces and over a certain altitude. The only things on the checklist to receive your own Helix are a meager $9,000 deposit, meeting the height and weight requirements of being 220 pounds or less and 6’5” or shorter, and going through at least 30 hours of training first through an immersive virtual reality simulation.

Mark Smith, a Pivotal production associate who’s been flying since he was 16, said switching from fixed-wing airplanes to the BlackFly, even in simulation, was a dramatic change. 

“It was a little unnerving for me, being a pilot of 45 years,” Smith said. “I’ve flown helicopters, but when I flew this thing, you see your surroundings suspended in the air, and I went ‘Woah!’”

A man in a blazer and jeans stands with arms crossed next to a sleek, futuristic vehicle labeled "HELIX," which has a glossy white and red exterior with a tinted canopy.
CEO of Pivotal, Ken Karklin and the Helix, an electric flying vehicle, at the Pivotal headquarters in Palo Alto. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

The BlackFly and the Helix have produced a buzz across the country. Lum said he gets about 10 emails a week inquiring about the craft. Pivotal’s CEO Ken Karklin said the company is regularly approached by those looking to use the vehicles for personal and commercial use, from influencers vying for a brand deal to rich playboys and Hollywood production companies. Though the company is implementing a kind of jailbreak into the Helix that will allow owners to install longer-lasting batteries, the technology has yet to be developed. 

“My former CEO once said there are liars, damn liars and then there’s battery suppliers,” Karklin said. “You’ve got to verify everything.”

As Pivotal delivers the Helix to buyers over the next year, the company plans to have events across the Bay Area. The BlackFly will take flight at Sausalito’s Fourth of July festivities, where locals can expect to see more than just fireworks in the sky. 

“It’s all airspace to us,” Karklin grinned.

Sam Mondros can be reached at