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VFS Vertiflite Commentary: An uplifting Community

This arti­cle was writ­ten by Mike Hirschberg, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor at the Ver­ti­cal Flight Soci­ety. It was first pub­lished in the Ver­ti­cal Flight Soci­ety’s mag­a­zine, September/October 2022 edi­tion.


Where­as asso­ci­a­tions and oth­er groups talk about the ‘heli­copter indus­try’ and the ‘ver­ti­cal lift indus­try’, the Ver­ti­cal Flight Soci­ety — a tech­ni­cal, edu­ca­tion­al non-prof­it — is here for the ‘ver­ti­cal flight com­mu­ni­ty’. We are not a trade asso­ci­a­tion or a busi­ness league. We are the com­mu­ni­ty of indi­vid­u­als, uni­ver­si­ties, com­pa­nies and oth­er organ­i­sa­tions focused on the mis­sion of advanc­ing ver­ti­cal flight.

There are no min­i­mum require­ments or qual­i­fi­ca­tions to join VFS. We are a pro­fes­sion­al soci­ety where every­one who has an inter­est and pas­sion for the sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy of ver­ti­cal take­off and land­ing (VTOL) air­craft and relat­ed fields is wel­come — and hope­ful­ly made to feel wel­come as well. 

When I was a young engi­neer in the 1990s, what attract­ed me to what was then called the ‘Amer­i­can Heli­copter Soci­ety’ was the open­ness, friend­li­ness and encour­age­ment of the Society’s mem­bers and staff. At the time, I felt like I was just some dumb kid who didn’t know any­thing about heli­copters — I was work­ing on the Joint Strike Fight­er (JSF) propul­sion sys­tem devel­op­ments at the time — but fell in love with our mem­bers and the uplift­ing com­mu­ni­ty. 

The Soci­ety has always had a ‘big tent’ phi­los­o­phy: every­one was wel­come, not just ‘Amer­i­can heli­copter’ engi­neers and sci­en­tists. It changed the name to ‘AHS Inter­na­tion­al’ in 1997 — with the tagline, ‘The Ver­ti­cal Flight Soci­ety’ — to empha­sise that the Soci­ety wel­comes every­one around the world who is inter­est­ed in ver­ti­cal flight, includ­ing tiltro­tors, fixed-wing VTOL and drones. That tagline offi­cial­ly became our name in 2018 and we dou­bled down on this inclu­sive out­look.

My first expo­sures to ‘AHS’ inspired me to get more involved then and con­tin­ue to pro­pel me today. It’s that feel­ing of being wel­comed that I hope all of our mem­bers not only feel them­selves, but help to pro­mote with their col­leagues, oth­er VFS mem­bers and oth­ers in the ver­ti­cal flight com­mu­ni­ty, to help engen­der this sense of belong­ing. VFS is the home for every­one. 

VTOL Is Hard

I pub­lished my first ever arti­cle in the March/April 1997 issue of Ver­ti­flite. The 20-page “V/STOL: The First Half-Cen­tu­ry” includ­ed my update of the wheel of ‘V/STOL Air­craft and Propul­sion Con­cepts’ (), describ­ing the 45 ver­ti­cal and/or short take­off and land­ing (V/STOL) air­craft that had been built and test­ed to com­bine the ver­ti­cal flight capa­bil­i­ties of a heli­copter with the effi­cient cruise of a fixed-wing air­craft. 

Around 1999, I gave a lec­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land on the V/STOL Wheel. World-renowned heli­copter pio­neer Prof. Alfred Ges­sow com­ment­ed that there was nev­er a mis­sion where V/STOL made sense. I replied that the US Marine Corps dis­agreed. 

Despite 50 years of devel­op­ments, only the Har­ri­er and the Sovi­et Yakovlev Yak-38 ‘Forg­er’ had reached oper­a­tional sta­tus. How­ev­er, two con­tro­ver­sial pro­grams were under­way at the time, the V‑22 Osprey and JSF — now the F‑35B Light­ning II — which were declared oper­a­tional in 2007 and 2015, respec­tive­ly. Despite sig­nif­i­cant devel­op­ment issues, both have since been high­ly suc­cess­ful in ser­vice. 

Sim­i­lar­ly, today’s nov­el con­fig­u­ra­tions of elec­tric VTOL (eVTOL) air­craft for advanced air mobil­i­ty (AAM) mis­sions face sim­i­lar head­winds. When we first realised the trans­for­ma­tive ver­ti­cal flight capa­bil­i­ties of eVTOL in 2013, I would tell our mem­bers: “Based on every­thing you know, it’s impos­si­ble [for eVTOL to be suc­cess­ful]. But based on every­thing you don’t know, it’s going to hap­pen.” Some of this, of course, was brava­do, but after a decade of work, all the pieces are com­ing into place that should make the ‘Elec­tric VTOL Rev­o­lu­tion’ suc­cess­ful. 

The tire­less efforts of many of the ear­ly star­tups and addi­tion­al well-fund­ed com­pa­nies have result­ed in dozens of large-scale fly­ing demon­stra­tors, and inspired hun­dreds of new com­pa­nies and inno­va­tors. More than 700 eVTOL designs are now cat­a­logued in our defin­i­tive World eVTOL Air­craft Direc­to­ry (www.eVTOL.news/aircraft) with an aver­age of one new con­cept added every oth­er day.

While it’s great that trans­for­ma­tion­al ver­ti­cal flight has inspired hun­dreds of inno­v­a­tive ideas, not all are backed by a sol­id grasp of physics, cer­ti­fi­ca­tion require­ments, mar­ket needs and busi­ness plans. To para­phrase a well-known meme (mis­at­trib­uted to John Wayne): “VTOL is hard, but it’s hard­er if you’re igno­rant.”

But instead of dis­miss­ing all of these design­ers as star­ry-eyed dream­ers, we should apply the same rigour as used in VFS meet­ings for tech­ni­cal paper pre­sen­ta­tions and most organ­i­sa­tions for design reviews, etc. I often hear VFS mem­bers com­ment after a pre­sen­ta­tion with gen­tle com­ments like, “That’s a good start, but have you looked at A, B and C?” or “You should con­sid­er X, Y and Z.” That’s what a com­mu­ni­ty does when it’s wel­com­ing and inter­est­ed in advanc­ing ver­ti­cal flight. 

Too often we see dis­mis­sive com­men­ta­tors or snarky com­ments on social media. Let’s not be them. Let’s be affirm­ing and sup­port­ive, and give cri­tiques, not snarky crit­i­cism.


The pan­dem­ic, remote work and increas­ing online and phys­i­cal­ly dis­con­nect­ed inter­ac­tions with face­less — and some­times name­less or anony­mous — indi­vid­u­als have reduced our pro­fes­sion­al and civ­il inter­ac­tion skills. The hyper-polar­i­sa­tion of pol­i­tics and the cacoph­o­ny of social media and the news media exac­er­bate the ‘us’ and ‘them’ divi­sive­ness.

Our jour­nal edi­tors have start­ed receiv­ing unpro­fes­sion­al com­ments back from authors who dis­agree with their review­ers’ assess­ments. Some­times these are even ad hominem attacks. That’s inap­pro­pri­ate and uncalled for in pro­fes­sion­al engage­ment. Per­haps in an attempt to con­vey strong­ly held con­vic­tions, the author thinks that they are still in a grey area, but they are not. 

Unpro­fes­sion­al com­ments and neg­a­tive behav­iour cause addi­tion­al fric­tion and entropy in soci­ety. We all should aspire to be the most pos­i­tive con­trib­u­tor pos­si­ble to our com­mu­ni­ty, to be inspi­ra­tional for our cowork­ers, cur­rent and poten­tial col­leagues, and the future ver­ti­cal work­force. 

We have a lot of dis­rup­tive ideas that can be con­sid­ered and explored, and it is com­plete­ly appro­pri­ate for prob­ing tech­ni­cal dis­cus­sions, but please main­tain your pro­fes­sion­al deco­rum — be the lift that moves ver­ti­cal flight for­ward, rather than drag­ging oth­ers down. 

Work­force Inclu­sion

Over the past decade, advances in mil­i­tary and civ­il VTOL air­craft, tech­nolo­gies and approach­es have led us here today, to what may be the most excit­ing time ever in ver­ti­cal flight. Bil­lions of dol­lars, euros, yuan, etc. are going into the devel­op­ment of advanced ver­ti­cal flight air­craft, includ­ing the US Army’s Future Ver­ti­cal Lift, the Euro­pean Union’s Clean Sky 2 demon­stra­tors, com­mer­cial rotor­craft, eVTOL/AAM pro­grammes, uncrewed air­craft sys­tems (UAS), etc. 

One of the defin­ing chal­lenges of this tran­si­tion­al peri­od of ver­ti­cal flight is the future ver­ti­cal work­force. Scores of com­pa­nies around the world are hir­ing dozens or hun­dreds of engi­neers and oth­ers in what has been dubbed a war for tal­ent. 

VFS has writ­ten a series of arti­cles and Ver­ti­flite Com­men­taries and con­duct­ed two stud­ies on the sub­ject (see ). Key take­aways are that the cur­rent tal­ent pool is too small and the tal­ent pipeline is not pro­duc­ing ver­ti­cal flight engi­neers fast enough to meet demand. 

One way to help ame­lio­rate the short­fall is by pur­pose­ful­ly work­ing to cre­ate more inclu­sive envi­ron­ments (see “Chang­ing the Face of the AAM Indus­try,” Ver­ti­flite, March/April 2022). Aero­space is one of the least diverse indus­tries in the US — approx­i­mate­ly 88% of aero­space engi­neers in Amer­i­ca are men.

Top US engi­neer­ing schools strug­gle to approach 30% women enter­ing under­grad­u­ate stu­dent bod­ies, and it goes down­hill from there. Sim­i­lar­ly, 72% of aero­space engi­neers are white, com­pared to 61% of the pop­u­la­tion. VFS has a num­ber of pro­grams under our Diver­si­Flite ini­tia­tive () but we need everyone’s help in pro­vid­ing a wel­com­ing envi­ron­ment. 

There is a huge gap in miss­ing engi­neers — those who have been dis­cour­aged or exclud­ed from pur­su­ing (or remain­ing in) careers in engi­neer­ing. Engi­neers are trained to look at the world and see prob­lems that need to be solved and oppor­tu­ni­ties for improve­ment. We should apply the same approach to human resource issues. 

The VTOL com­mu­ni­ty is suc­cess­ful when we bring togeth­er a diver­si­ty of minds and attract the best tal­ent. 

One of the out­comes of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic is that it caused employ­ees to rethink their careers, work con­di­tions and long-term goals, result­ing in the “Great Res­ig­na­tion” (aka the “Great Reshuf­fle”). Let’s be a com­mu­ni­ty of choice for those want­i­ng to join — or remain — in ver­ti­cal flight. 

Uplift­ing Our Com­mu­ni­ty

VFS invites every­one to join the Soci­ety and help build the future. Peo­ple of all skills, inter­ests, back­grounds, races, eth­nic­i­ties, gen­ders and iden­ti­ties are wel­come. Let’s all work togeth­er to grow our com­mu­ni­ty through uplift­ing out­reach and affirm­ing engage­ment.

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Jason Pritchard

Jason Pritchard is the Editor of eVTOL Insights. He holds a BA from Leicester's De Montfort University and has worked in Journalism and Public Relations for more than a decade. Outside of work, Jason enjoys playing and watching football and golf. He also has a keen interest in Ancient Egypt.

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