Are we really that different?
Leonardo da Vinci designed the first helicopter concept, the aerial screw. The first practical helicopter flew in 1939, with Igor Sikorsky at the helm. Today, we have glass cockpits, composite airframes and rotor blades, as well as more efficient, cleaner-burning turbine engines. We’ve expanded the capabilities of our aircraft in nearly every way, including remotely piloted and autonomous flights.
Evolution in vertical lift has been going on for a long time. And now, thanks to advances in computer programming, materials science, and other disciplines, the world of vertical lift is once again expanding. The Vertical Flight Society lists more than 600 designs for electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft in development by nearly 350 companies around the world. It’s a given that not all of these will make it to certification, but I have a hard time believing that none of them will. Advanced air mobility (AAM) is on its way.
The substantial differences between the conventional aircraft of today and the ones of tomorrow embolden some to claim that AAM is an entirely new industry. Their machines will be quieter, cleaner, they promise. The idea that AAM will replace helicopters, however, is nothing more than a marketing scheme, useful until Day 1 after certification—which is when the similarities between AAM and helicopters will become apparent.
We will need pilots and mechanics to fly and fix these eVTOL machines, drawing from an already tight labor pool for skilled aviation workers. Pilots will need training on these new aircraft, requiring simulators to be built and certificated. Standards for maintenance on electric vehicles must be developed. You can’t run an aviation business without insurance, so those folks will have to get involved. Airspace will have to be developed in an already saturated system, especially around urban areas. Safety, especially when your business model involves carrying paying passengers, must be paramount. In short, AAM operators will face the same issues and be looking for the same answers as helicopter operators.
There are no new missions. The helicopter industry has been doing urban air mobility for well over half a century; we just call it “on demand.” Many of our global members are already using AAM in their operations, so we can see the practical results of AAM integration. The economics are clear: for the right mission, eVTOL aircraft are the right choice.
Yes, change is coming, but it will happen over the course of years. AAM can’t immediately meet the performance margins that current technology provides. Did you know that when there’s a wildfire, the first thing to be shut down is the power grid? It’s a good thing Black Hawks and Chinooks are powered by a different fuel as they carry thousands of gallons of water to save homes and communities. Just as some missions will fit the profile for AAM aircraft, some won’t.
For all to survive and prosper, we must collaborate with each other on lessons learned since Sikorsky’s first flight in 1939. HAI has started making the adjustments that will help our members keep their rotors turning—whether that’s on their VTOL or eVTOL aircraft. The HAI Board of Directors has appointed Jonathan Daniels, CEO of Praxis Aerospace Concepts International, our special advisor for emerging technology to advise on issues related to our industry’s expansion. We’re assessing our strategy to keep HAI relevant and focused on helping all our members succeed. We’re evolving, just as you are, but our mission remains the same.