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eVTOL | Is it an Ally, or a Trojan Horse?

Posted 183 days ago ago by Admin

Have you ever noticed an airship hovering over a sporting venue near a major airport? There is no chaos or mayhem to the orderly flow of aircraft, all operate safely while following prescribed procedures to allow such activities to take place. In previous years, these sporting venues would have had countless aircraft safely operating in and around each other simply due to the vigilance in procedural development exercised by the aviation industry in partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The system worked!   

Over the years, the aviation industry has adopted many new categories and classes of aircraft into the National Airspace System (NAS). These differing aircraft have been classified by their unique performance characteristics. It is the ability for the NAS to be flexible and accommodating to these varied aircraft that allows the system to function well. With each addition, regulations and procedures have been developed to enhance the existing NAS structure so that safe and effective airspace structure is available to all.

Since the introduction of Electric Vertical Tak-off and Landings  (eVTOL) aircraft, it appears this conversation has changed. No longer is the adoption of this new technology seen as requiring integration into the NAS. The desired path taken by developers and regulators in direct support of eVTOL believe the NAS must change to fit eVTOL. Are these actions by eVTOL developers in support of the helicopter industry, or is it their intention to replace it? 

Recently, Joby Aviation and Volocopter both flew short test flights at NYC's Downtown Manhattan Heliport (DMH). New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced the city's intention to electrify the heliport, laying the groundwork for New York to become the global leader in the adoption of clean, quiet flight.

Mayor Adams' administration stated it supports electric aircraft that have zero operating emissions for rapid, back-to-back flights across New York City. It cites an example of flying from Manhattan to John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), which can take more than an hour by car, expects the trip to take just seven minutes by air. But what of the existing helicopter operators already providing that service?

This wouldn’t be an issue if existing helicopter operators could simply acquire an eVTOL and add it to their fleet and continue operations. However, what if the eVTOL developer desires to compete in lieu of supporting existing helicopter operators? 

While demonstrating the eVTOL aircraft in NYC, JoeBen Bevirt, founder and CEO of Joby Aviation, said, “By electrifying one of the most famous heliports in the world, New York is demonstrating global leadership in the adoption of electric air travel. We’re grateful for the support of the city, and we’re honored to be working with visionary partners like Delta Air Lines to bring our air taxi service to this market. We plan to make quiet, emissions-free flight an affordable, everyday reality for New Yorkers, while significantly reducing the impact of helicopter noise.”   

Several eVTOL developers, including Joby, have openly stated their desire to not only design and build these new aircraft, but also be the “air taxi” operators of this new technology. Without question, the eVTOL industry desires to sharply engage in commercial passenger transportation within the same market as the helicopter industry. Once established as a commercial eVTOL operator, why assume eVTOL market desires would remain limited to passenger-carrying services. What about powerline inspections, aerial survey, electronic news gathering, and any other vertical-lift utilization where eVTOL aircraft can eventually perform. It’s not a stretch to see a camera or cargo hook mounted on an eVTOL aircraft.

The introduction of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2023 is to ensure the United States has safe, reliable and resilient air travel, stronger consumer protections for the flying public, advanced research in aviation innovation and a modernized national airspace system to maintain the gold standard in aviation safety for years to come. Within this legislation, much emphasis was given to eVTOL and other emerging technologies, both piloted and non-piloted. What is missing is any directive to integrate this technology into the existing NAS system working with the existing helicopter structure.   

I fully support eVTOL integration into the NAS. As an operator, I would welcome a new vehicle into our fleet to meet eventual environmental regulatory requirements to secure continued operations of my vertical lift business. What I’m not seeing is an equal desire for the eVTOL industry players to integrate into the existing helicopter industry infrastructure. So far, all efforts taken are to differentiate eVTOL from helicopters to include specific infrastructure such as eVTOL specific airways, altitudes, landing areas, etc. 

It appears eVTOL developers desire exclusion much more than inclusion when aligning with the existing helicopter industry. The eVTOL developers articulate arguments in support of such exclusion due to performance variances and capabilities of their aircraft, which would preclude full integration with helicopters. What isn’t mentioned is their desire to saturate their markets with a constant flow of eVTOL aircraft solutions with less than one-minute turnaround times; an environment where a helicopter would be more of a distraction to their desired business model.

All the attention the vertical lift industry is receiving due to eVTOL emergence is beneficial to the aggregate of the industry. Within all the fanfare given to eVTOL, it may be easy to lose sight of the potential negatives to the helicopter operators in the long term. Yet without asking the hard questions, falsely embracing eVTOL without a required commitment to the helicopter industry could be our demise.   

I’ve heard it said, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but in terms of a Trojan Horse, looking in the horses’ mouth may have won the war! 

About the Author: Randy Rowles has been a FAA pilot examiner for 20 years for all helicopter certificates and ratings. He holds a FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor Certificate, NAFI Master Flight Instructor designation, and was the 2013 recipient of the HAI Flight Instructor of the Year Award. Rowles is the owner/president of Helicopter Institute.

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