Jace “Digit” McCown, Chief Pilot for LIFT Aircraft, formerly flew the UH1N helicopter for the US Air Force. He now lives near Austin, Texas, with his wife, Chelsea, and their six kids… plus some ducks, bees, and two dogs. He’s also a really talented and highly skilled engineer and pilot. We recently caught up with him to talk about all of it.
LIFT: Jace, we call you “Digit”, so I think that’s a good place to start. It’s been said that you don’t choose your call sign, your call sign chooses you. Why “Digit”?
Digit: This is the call sign I earned at the end of my Air Force career after I managed to put my hand into a power saw while I was doing some woodworking and I nearly lost some of my digits! Luckily, they were retained through the work of some really talented medical professionals. I do have pretty good use of my hand despite all that. That’s the official narrative but there is more to it. As tradition goes, to get the full story, you’ll have to buy me a beer.
LIFT: Ouch! Did that impede your ability to fly?
Digit: So actually, the last two years I was in the Air Force I was not flying because of that injury. During that time I started taking a look at what might be next, how my injury might resolve, and despite eventually getting my flight clearance back, that exploration led me to choose to leave the service to pursue unmanned aircraft.
LIFT: We’ll come back to your time in the Air Force, but let’s back up a bit. It’s obvious to anyone who sees you fly our aircraft, HEXA, that you’re having the time of your life. When did you fall in love with flying?
Digit: I don't remember a time when I wasn't just super passionate about flying things. My favorite animal growing up was the peregrine falcon because of it’s speed and flight, so it's no wonder I wanted to fly high performance aircraft.I just always remember my parents telling me, “Try to pursue something you can enjoy for your work.” And as a child I was like, well what is the most fun thing I could do? I'd like to test brand new roller coasters or something ridiculous! I just wanted to do something crazy fun. And that’s how I imagined it would be like to be a pilot.I just kind of pointed myself in that direction from a super early age, and, arguably, never grew up from that childhood dream.
LIFT: And what did that look like, pointing yourself in that direction?
Digit: I set my goal to fly the best, coolest, equipment on the planet. So, to me that meantI'm gonna go join the US Military. And the Air Force has all the cool fighters - Navy guys, don’t come after me! So it's like a target, you know, I'm narrowing things down. I want to fly for the US Air Force so I can fly the coolest equipment on the planet.
LIFT: So were you already a pilot at this point, do you have your PPL?
Digit: No, I'm seven years old at this point!
LIFT: Haha! Ok, so we have some ground to cover! You attended the Air Force Academy. How did you choose that path?
Digit: I had guidance along the way. When I was around middle school age, we went on a family vacation from Texas up to Montana. We drove through Colorado Springs, Colorado which is where the United States Air Force academy is located. A very conscious decision was made by my family to take me there to visit.
Right then and there was when I decided “I'm going to go to the Air Force Academy,” so I basically focused my entire high school career on that goal, which is almost something you have to do to get in because it's highly competitive. I participated in the varsity choir, varsity sports, all the clubs, and societies to round out the whole picture with the goal of getting in.
LIFT: And ultimately, you got in.
Digit: I did, and while there, I was able to get a pilot slot. Earlier, I alluded to the fact that I wanted to fly fighters. I wanted to fly something fast and break the sound barrier and do all those kinds of amazing things. But when I got through the first phase of pilot training, they weren't looking for any fighters. There are folks from my group who ended up finding their way to fighters, but at the moment that I went through, there were no fighter slots available.
LIFT: Was that a pivotal moment for you?
Digit: That was a big thing. “Oh my gosh what am I gonna do with my whole life?” That's when I found helicopters.
When I thought about what I really liked about flying it was kind of the intense experience. Going fast, pulling g’s, doing really amazing things, and helicopters provide some of that same experience in a different way. You fly very, very low so you get the sensation of going fast in some of the same ways, and you get to do really neat stuff like bringing in troops for landing, search and rescue, and more; there's a lot of the dynamism, and that's what I was craving.So, I got accepted to be a helicopter pilot and served in the Air Force for 10 years.
LIFT: You said your exploration led you to eventually choose to leave the service to pursue unmanned aircraft. Did your path lead you directly to LIFT?
Digit: Not directly! I got very interested in sustainable farming. I actually started my master's degree in Agroforestry, which is a functional way to do sustainable farming where you are integrating multiple farming systems together.So for example, you’re growing cattle and crops in the same land, you’re co-mingling systems because they're demonstrably more efficient, but managing the systems is super difficult. Robotics - flying robotics - seemed to be the way forward.
Realizing this, I thought to myself that the way to make an impact here is not to start my own sustainable farm, but it's to go and get into drones and take my background in computer engineering and problem solving, a technical mindset combined with my experience in aviationand bring them together and maybe carry that into something that is about making people's lives better. And that's how I ended up getting out of the service and jumping into drones.
LIFT: And then you found LIFT?
Digit: Not quite yet! I’m a native to Austin, Texas and was able to come back and find a job here. I started with a company doing cargo drones - big, big cargo drones with an eighteen foot wingspan. I don't know why they hired me, because at the time I had never flown an RC plane in my life. Not really ever flown a multi copter either. I'd done a little bit of camera drone stuff but we're talking an hour or two of total flight time. And I wasn't a flight test professional in any sense at this point.
I learned a lot there - about electric propulsion and control systems, and manufacturing of carbon fiber, and all the things that I did not know going into it. And that led me to being available when LIFT Aircraft was looking for someone to fill a very similar role.
LIFT: Now that you’re at LIFT, there’s some full-circle stuff going on for you.
Digit: Yes, as you can imagine with the US Air Force as a LIFT customer, it is definitely full circle. But probably even more than you would think. Where we're testing out at Eglin Air Force Base, HEXA is actually alongside the UH-1N helicopter test aircraft. So some of the folks that we’re working with now are folks that I knew and flew with when I was in the service. I would have never imagined when I got out that I would be back and interfacing with these people in this way.
Working with the Air Force professionals has been just amazing. I did not get to go to test pilot school, but I'm now working with my friends who I flew with in the air force who did go down that path. I’m gaining from their experiences while they're simultaneously getting to gain from the path that I took and experiences related to that.
LIFT: You flew the Huey UH-1N helicopter in the Air Force. How does flying HEXA compare?
Digit: When you're operating a helicopter, fighter jet, or other mission-focused system, there are definitely moments where you get to just enjoy the aircraft, but a lot of the time the systems are so complex and you're doing such demanding things with them that pilots are often consumed by the operation. So you're not just up there flying roller coasters all the time as I imagined as a kid. Those moments aren't nearly as frequent as you might hope.
In HEXA, the complexities of operating the aircraft are largely born by the computers and our ground crew, and the safety and the redundancies that we’ve built in make it so that you don't have to think about all that hard stuff the first time you climb in. You just get the raw experience. You get the experience that I was looking for when I was seven years old.
In the summertime, we would take the doors off the Huey. Similarly, HEXA has an open cabin so you're just right there. Your field of view isn't cluttered with innumerable instrument panels. You don’t need to feel like you've got to check on the engines and all these things to make sure everything's aligned because you know HEXA’s doing that for you. You're just able to take in the wide field of view. The experience is intense.
LIFT: You’ve been with LIFT for several years and are now approaching the time when the public will be able to fly. What's it been like getting to that point?
Digit: It has taken a lot of energy! I think working in a startup requires a lot of gumption, a lot of will, a lot of “go get it-ness,” and so there's some amount of that which can account for getting this pyramid put together. Having a great team, of course, has been essential. You can't move any of those blocks by yourself, despite what you might think.
What has helped a lot for us, too, is the underlying simplicity of some of the systems. The person who's hopping into the aircraft and is gonna fly doesn't have to learn a whole lot - it is very simple to do. As long as you did everything else right leading up to that, which is what we focus so much of our efforts on, that person can climb in and take part in this because of all the effort that came before. It's the capstone. It’s moving the last piece into the very top, sitting on top of this pyramid which has been carefully built out by all of our team and is supporting the weight of that one last bit.
LIFT: Finally, what does it mean to you to be the Chief Pilot at LIFT Aircraft?
Digit: Personally, I feel very blessed to be in this position at this time and to be a part of this endeavor. To be able to see this vision come to fruition. It's really neat to have, in many ways, structured my life so that I was able to fall into this when it was available. There was definitely intention in many of those things, but it's also, of course, just a bit of a luck of the draw in some ways. So, I think I'm very lucky.
I’m focusing now on bringing that passion for making robotics work for us today through LIFT Aircraft to help find that purpose, that joy I was seeking when I was a kid. I can wholly identify with LIFT’s goal of getting people in the air and experiencing flight today. Matt (Chasen, Founder & CEO of LIFT) has built this company with this vision in mind, and so my career to this point has led to me to being in this position where I can use my capabilities here, where we are today, to make that happen for anyone who has a dream of flying.