Vertiports and heliports at medical facilities like Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie, New York (above), will need to accommodate not just helicopters in the future but cargo drones and electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, as well. (Heliplanners Photo)

 

Funding and technology for advanced air mobility will benefit all vertical aviation.

When it comes to government investment, vertical aviation has tended to get the short end of the stick compared with the fixed-wing industry. But times are changing.

The billions of dollars and environmental enthusiasm backing a new generation of advanced air mobility (AAM) electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicles could have a spillover benefit for the entire rotorcraft sector.

“We’ve always been second fiddle to the airlines,” laments Rex Alexander, president of aviation consultancy Five-Alpha and a member of VAI’s Vertical Flight Infrastructure Sub-Working Group. “People who fly at 1,000 ft. and below really don’t get nearly the money the fixed-wing community that flies at 3,000 ft. and above receives.”

But infrastructure expert Alexander sees promise in the excitement surrounding AAM. “I think there’s an op­por­tunity here,” he says. “We’ve been told by people at the FAA and on Capitol Hill that if you can tie this new low-altitude infrastructure, including vertiports, low-level weather predicting and reporting, and air traffic control, to advanced air mobility, we can help you,” Alexander continues. “The legacy helicopter industry will definitely benefit from the influx of funding and technology AAM is going to bring to the low-altitude flight environment.”

Chris Martino, VAI’s senior director of operations and international affairs, echoes Alexander’s assessment. “Our members won’t operate just helicopters; some will transition over to these next-generation vehicles, and some will operate both,” Martino says.

“It’s not just the vertical aviation fleet that will become more diverse—we expect to see that diversity reflected in an operator’s hangar. And we see our purpose as supporting all vertical aviation aircraft,” Martino explains.

The Template for Shared Infrastructure

But how will this diverse fleet be served by a cohesive infrastructure model? Martino points to future vertiports at Level I trauma center hospitals as a possible template. Hospitals currently house an estimated 90% of all heliports and helipads in the United States, according to Alexander.

The vertiports and heliports of tomorrow will transport to hospitals not just patients but also organs, critical supplies, and medications via cargo drones, eVTOLs, and traditional helicopters. Aviation facilities at these medical centers will need to accommodate all three types of aircraft.

Performance-based facility design criteria, as discussed in the FAA’s 2022 Engineering Brief (EB) No. 105, Vertiport Design, are the key to bringing this template to life, according to Martino. Performance-based design standards—where regulators define the goal or performance standard that must be met but leave to designers and engineers how to meet that standard—are increasingly used in aviation rulemaking. Prescriptive design, which spells out exactly how standards must be met, is increasingly seen as unable to keep up with the modern pace of technology development.

“It really is incumbent upon regulators, legislators, and industry to work together to create performance design criteria for this new operational environment,” Martino says. “First, because that’s the way to build infrastructure with the flexibility to serve a diverse fleet. Second, because I hope we’ve learned the lesson that we need to design for all future technologies that can meet the performance standard.”

The elevated heliport at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago hosts more than 70 flights annually. Illinois is home to 273 heliports, according to the state’s transportation department. (Rex Alexander Photo)

EB No. 105, which the FAA claims is a “living document,” applies more-stringent standards for operations of eVTOLs compared with traditional rotorcraft, including suggesting a larger physical infrastructure than is included in the agency’s latest heliport design advisory circular (AC 150/5390-2D—Heliport Design), issued in January 2023. The standards in EB No. 105 could be relaxed in time, once regulators have a better handle on AAM vehicle performance.

But for now, the catch is that most AAM vehicle performance remains unknown. Even so, via the FAA’s Airport Data and Information Portal (see “Voluntary Design Standards, Mandatory Registration,” p. 47), a vertiport developer can apply for the agency to study a particular facility design under Part 157.

“Until we get some of these vehicles operational, we can’t know” about performance, Martino says. And performance means more than just speed, range, and payload. In addition to the operating environment and tempo, Martino mentions other variables that may affect vertiport design, such as questions about social and public acceptance and the source of infrastructure funding.

But this temporary entropy doesn’t equate to inaction. VAI is committed to driving programs to get the infrastructure funded and to working with industry partners via the association’s Advanced Air Mobility Advisory Council, Martino points out. In November 2023, the council issued an updated Roadmap of Advanced Air Mobility Operations with near-, mid-, and far-term goals for AAM operations and infrastructure. The roadmap calls for leveraging current airports, developing additional infrastructure standards and capacity, and building new vertiports.

Single Classification for All Players

What exactly is the difference between heliports and verti­ports? According to the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance, a vertiport is “a collective term referring to areas designed specifically for AAM aircraft to take off and land, much like a heliport is a designated area for helicopters.”

Developing AAM infrastructure that can serve all vertical aviation aircraft will require both a short and a long game, notes Alexander. Utilizing existing airports is the short game, he says.

“Airports lend themselves better to the space requirements and [just afford] more opportunities. In many cases, they also have the needed electrical capacity. Many heliports don’t have electricity, and those that do have only 110-volt service, so moving in sufficient electricity [to support eVTOLs] is a huge challenge,” Alexander says.

There’s also the question of local politics and regulations surrounding infrastructure, says Kathryn Wright, VP at Heliplanners, an aviation planning firm specializing in heliport and verti­port development. Getting zoning approval “for a completely new animal” like a vertiport is “a big lift, a lot of work, and a much bigger uphill battle [in the current political environment], whereas a heliport, especially where there’s already local zoning approval, is a lot easier to handle. I tend to be of the belief that a vertiport should be [considered] a type of heliport,” Wright says.

The long game is “to figure out what is and is not compatible” in terms of “mixing helicopters in with eVTOLs at a single site,” says Alexander. He points to aircraft throughput volume, multiple and simultaneous operations, and wake turbulence as just a few of the variables that need to be considered when mixing in a 5,000-lb. eVTOL and, say, a 15,400-lb. Leonardo AW139 helicopter. “Are they equivalent enough from a performance standpoint?” Alexander wonders.

The folks at Vertiport Chicago seem to think they are. Located off the South Loop in downtown Chicago, Illinois, the facility sprawls over 10 acres and sports ramp space for up to eight helicopters and hangar space for nine more.

Last year, the vertiport announced plans for scheduled eVTOL service to O’Hare International Airport (KORD), beginning in 2025, using Archer Midnight eVTOLs owned and operated by United Airlines. The eVTOLs should be able to make the trip between Vertiport Chicago and O’Hare in 10 minutes, versus the typical hour-plus freeway crawl that ground vehicles endure.

Vertiport Chicago is already gearing up to add electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft to its traffic mix. Opposite: The Kaiser Permanente Vacaville Medical Center heliport, Vacaville, California. (Vertiport Chicago and Heliplanners Photos)

Financing Still an Issue

Because Vertiport Chicago sits adjacent to a major rail yard, bringing additional electricity onto the site will be easier than it would be at some other locations. Still, the larger question of financing eVTOL infrastructure remains far from settled. Political leaders in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Miami have all voiced support for AAM but haven’t made any significant financial commitments to advancing it.

Initially, that support will need to be federal. And there’s the sticking point. According to Alexander, it comes down to vertiport ownership: privately owned facilities are ineligible for federal funds and grants, and the vast majority of US heliports and helipads are private. “You have to be public to even apply for federal grant money,” he notes.

Alexander thinks the problem can be solved by creating a new classification of heliport and vertiport beyond the current private and public by adding the term “private-­commercial” and making facilities under the categorization eligible for government support. But that process, he warns, could take four to six years, requiring rule changes for grant eligibility.

When the funding does come, Martino stresses, it needs to be inclusive of both new and existing infrastructure and not discriminate against helicopters. “VAI is fighting hard to make sure the FAA is integrating existing infrastructure, inclusive of helicopter operations.”

To that end, VAI’s Vertical Flight Infrastructure Sub-Working Group is focusing on:

  • Advocating for and engaging with international regulatory bodies to promote the harmonization of heliport and vertiport design standards
  • Providing education and resources for the heliport–­vertiport development and approvals process
  • Developing a model infrastructure-protection ordinance for adaptation and adoption by states and municipalities
  • Applying evolving fire-protection standards.

The sub-working group’s membership consists of heliport planners, helicopter operators, helideck manufacturers, lighting specialists, fire-suppression specialists, eVTOL OEMs, and heliport managers who hail from countries including Australia, India, the Netherlands, and the United States.

On Capitol Hill, Congress continues to promote AAM with legislation including the Advanced Air Mobility Coordination and Leadership Act, which was signed into law in 2022. The act directs the US secretary of transportation to establish an “advanced air mobility interagency working group” to “plan for and coordinate efforts related to safety, operations, infrastructure, physical security and cybersecurity, and federal investment necessary for maturation of the AAM ecosystem in the United States, particularly passenger-carrying aircraft” and develop “an AAM national strategy.”

Additionally, the 2024 FAA Reauthorization Act passed by Congress in mid-May streamlines regulatory processes to facilitate AAM and implement policies to support and promote vertical aviation. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), too, is deeply involved in the issue and is developing an AAM “playbook” with enabling technologies and strategies.

Internationally, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency in March 2022 released its Prototype Technical Design Specifications for Vertiports (PTS-VPT-DSN), and in July 2023, the UK Civil Aviation Authority published CAP2538, Considerations for Aerodromes and Vertiports Planning to Operate Vertical Takeoff and Landing Aircraft. That same month, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority released Advisory Circular 139, Guidelines for Vertiport Design.

In the United States, Alexander thinks federal oversight via the private-­commercial classification is essential for AAM to succeed.

“We’re going to have to have oversight of vertiports. If it’s private, the FAA has no authority, and then oversight would fall to the states, but only if they have [regulations] on the books,” he says.

Regulations aside, AAM continues to drive innovation that will benefit all vertical aviation. This includes urban microweather hazard-detection technology being developed by Mitre Corp. for the FAA and low-altitude air traffic management and deconfliction work continuing at NASA. These and other advancements promise to make the airspace below 1,000 ft. demonstrably safer for all users.


Voluntary Design Standards, Mandatory Registration

US heliport facilities, whether public or private, must register with the FAA.

When the FAA released its long‑awaited revision to the heliport/helipad/helistop design advisory circular in January 2023 (AC 150/5390-2D, Heliport Design), the agency stressed that the guidelines were voluntary for privately owned facilities and did not necessarily apply to vertiports. What the FAA did not emphasize, however, is that these facilities, whether publicly or privately owned, still must register with the FAA via the agency’s online Airport Data and Information Portal (ADIP) per 14 CFR Part 157.

This process includes completing FAA Form 7480-1, which includes providing a city map, heliport layout plan, and landing-area sketch or US quadrangle map. The information must be provided to the FAA within 90 days of the construction, implementation, or modification of the airport/helicopter facility. These same requirements are expected to apply to vertiports.

Densely populated and congested metro areas such as Houston, Texas, home to Landry’s West Loop South heliport, are attractive markets for vertiport expansion. (Heliplanners Photo)

Kathryn Wright, VP at Heliplanners, an aviation planning firm, says a large percentage of the helicopter community remains ignorant of the Part 157 requirement. “If you polled a random sample of thousands of pilots and people in the industry, a very large percentage would have no idea this is required. It’s just an education issue,” Wright says.

Wright, who serves as secretary of VAI’s Vertical Flight Infrastructure Sub-Working Group, stresses that any area considered for helicopter operations must submit to the Part 157 process, even if it’s just a parking lot next to a fire station with an encircled “H” painted on the pavement.

Wright says complying with Part 157 entails three key steps:

  • The heliport facility submits the landing area to the FAA via the ADIP, including information such as its location and elevation and what the design looks like
  • The FAA conducts a study of both the landing area and the adjacent airspace, a process that generally lasts about four months, running through the FAA airports and standards divisions and district offices
  • The FAA issues an airspace analysis determination letter with one of three possible findings: no objection, conditional no objection, or objectionable.

A conditional no objection letter generally will contain suggestions as to how to make the landing area safer, adding items such as signage and lighting. An objectionable finding is equivalent to the FAA finding the landing area unsafe but does not stop a private owner/operator from using the area.

An objectionable finding would have consequences only for a publicly owned/public-use facility, Wright says. Even in that case, the facility still could be operated, but it wouldn’t qualify for federal financial assistance, including the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program.

Once the heliport is up and running, the owner must submit an airport master record to the FAA. That happens automatically when the owner accepts comments from the FAA and the agency issues a finding of either no objection or conditional no objection.

Not having a determination letter from the FAA can have significant collateral consequences, Wright warns, especially in the event of accident-related litigation. “It just makes it easier for a jury to think you were doing something wrong.”

And it is the pilots, as opposed to the owner of the heliport/helipad, who often bear the brunt of the blame when things go sideways. “Most of the time, pilots are blamed for accidents caused by poor infrastructure design,” Wright says. “They aren’t trained in what to look for so that they know if it’s a good or bad landing site—and they need to be. But, again, many sites have no determination letter. At the very least, you should be submitting to the FAA and getting that determination letter.”

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Mark Huber

Mark Huber

Award-winning aviation journalist Mark Huber has covered the vertical flight industry for more than two decades for a variety of national and international publications. Follow him at @RotorWriter on X (formerly Twitter).