A rendering of Vertical Aerospace’s VA-X4 aircraft.

Photo:

Vertical Aerospace

Cabdrivers don’t need to worry about being replaced by flying cars. Helicopter makers might need to a little bit.

Vertical Aerospace, a British startup devoted to the development of electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicles, or eVTOL, has just received a preorder for 25 aircraft plus an option for 25 more from

Bristow Group,

a U.S.-owned operator of civil helicopters, the air-taxi company told The Wall Street Journal.

Vertical, which in June struck a deal with a blank-check investment vehicle to go public, already has announced preorders and options for 1,050 vehicles. Buyers include

American Airlines,

Virgin Atlantic and plane lessor Avolon Holdings.

Yet interest from helicopter companies may be more representative of where these glamorous but untested vehicles have a chance of succeeding.

Investors have been swept along by visions of “The Jetsons,” with some analysts promising that air taxis will become the “Ubers of the skies” for cities, opening up a $1 trillion market by 2040. So far, this is a pipe dream. The environmental case is doubtful, too: An analysis by

Ford Motor

and the University of Michigan suggests that eVTOL vehicles would pollute more than gasoline cars if flown for under 22 miles.

Airlines are hoping that these vehicles will allow them to fly thin routes between small airports that have become even more underserved since the pandemic. This is more pragmatic, but still hypothetical.

What isn’t hypothetical, though smaller, is the $50 billion helicopter market. Just like its two main competitors,

Joby Aviation

and Archer Aerospace, Vertical’s aircraft are designed to carry four passengers and use several small rotors that tilt, making them far quieter than a helicopter. Vertical’s VA-X4 is expected to travel a bit above 100 miles at a top speed of 200 miles an hour, so it could replace even top-selling helicopters—like the Airbus H125 and the Bell 206—on most missions, for potentially one-fifth of the cost.

If eVTOL aircraft companies are to achieve their commercial ambition of becoming flying taxis, then first they’ll need to ensure their aircrafts are quiet enough to work in cities without disturbing residents. WSJ’s George Downs looks into just how quiet these crafts need to be to take off. Photo composite: George Downs

Bristow ferries people back and forth from oil rigs as well as on search-and-rescue missions. Fittingly, its stock market ticker is “VTOL.” While the oil industry’s woes have been bad for helicopters over the past decade, Cirium data shows, other market segments such as air ambulances keep growing at a fast clip.

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Vertical founder and Chief Executive

Stephen Fitzpatrick

believes that eVTOL urban and regional markets will one day flourish, but that “the company philosophy is to first find an existing addressable market.”

To be sure, no money changes hands during these preorders, and they are contingent on the technology delivering on its promise and clearing certification bars, which will be tough. Unlike Joby’s full-size vehicle, the VA-X4 has yet to complete a test flight.

Yet the Bristow deal at least suggests that this ride could be going somewhere.

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Write to Jon Sindreu at jon.sindreu@wsj.com

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