It’s funny how a feature idea suddenly pops in to your head. In this case, it was seeing an image during a talk by Dave Webber, an AAM Flight Test Liaison Officer for the FAA, at a recent Vertical Flight Society ‘2023 Autonomous VTOL Technical Meeting and Electric VTOL Symposium’ held in Mesa, Arizona.
This is the image.
Why would the world’s leading aviation regulator use a comic strip image from a Jetsons cartoon to represent the green aviation revolution? Follow this up with Webber discussing what some suggest are too high levels of safety regulations for e/VTOL certification, throttling some innovative companies before they even begin the process, and I wondered… Surely, e/VTOLs are already safer than helicopters, the primary market it will replace, so why all this extra “certification froth?”
So the research began.
The FAA is proud, very proud of its safety record. The public are told that flying is safer than crossing a road. Statistics prove this. More recently, that an aircraft flight in the U.S “is even safer than getting out of bed in the morning” or so Sergio Cecutta from SMG Consulting says.
Even so, helicopters do have a poor record of safety when compared to general aviation. Data shows that in 2019, for example, there were 122 crashes in the U.S of which 24 were fatal leading to 51 deaths. Six years earlier, there had been 146 crashes of which 30 were fatal leading to 62 fatalities. Perhaps, safety overall is improving?
Yet, helicopter incidents are, unfortunately, still way too common especially when compared to the fixed wing world. While the accident rate for general aircraft is 7.28 crashes per 100,000 hours of flight time, for helicopters, that number is 9.84 per 100,000 hours.
What doesn’t help is the high profile certain helicopter crashes attract, particularly when a celebrity or an important person is killed. Two examples come to mind.
Kobe Bean Bryant, the legendary basketball player, who had spent 20 years playing for the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA, was widely regarded as one of the greatest basketball players and scorers of all time.
Tragically, he was killed in a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter when it crashed into the side of a mountain on January 26th, 2020 at Calabasas, close to Los Angeles. Bryant was 41 years-old. His 13-year-old daughter Gianna, six family friends, and the pilot, Ara Zobayan, also died. Basketball followers around the word mourned his death and the crash was global headline news for much of that week.
In the UK, fifteen months earlier, the popular billionaire owner of Leicester City FC, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, died along with the pilot and three other passengers, when his helicopter crashed in a fireball straight after take-off, outside the Leicester stadium. What made this even worse, is that various City fans had filmed the helicopter taking-off from the middle of the pitch, after a match, followed by the crash less than a minute later, via their mobile phones.
Under Srivaddhanaprabha’s ownership, the team had won the Premier League in 2016, having started the season as 5,000/1 outsiders. Leicester City fans were bereft.
eVTOLs are viewed, overall, as superior to the present USD49 billion helicopter market, especially surrounding safety, as this 14’ long CNBC film explains.
Yet, it seems the FAA, as well as EASA, are making it very difficult for emerging eVTOLs to be fully certified as Mark Moore, Founder and CEO of Whisper Aero, explains while speaking during a recent Aviation Week Webinar entitled ‘Do Or Die: Why 2023 Will Be Pivotal For AAM Startups.’
He says, “Many companies involved in this nascent eVTOL industry have never certified an aircraft before. They are told by the U.S and European regulators, ‘You have to have the highest level of safety possible.’ I have asked EASA several times to show their analysis, justifying selecting its 10 to the minus 9, but never been shown it.”
He continues, “Ok, let us go for this highest level. What about ten to the minus 12 or 15? What you will find is a less safe aircraft, for the certification value only pertains to 10 to 15 percent of accidents. The rest are operational. Wanting these ridiculously high standards, you are not increasing safety. What you are doing is disincentivizing manufacturers from dealing with and putting such systems in to their craft. EASA is making a horrible mistake.”
Moore then adds, “My prediction for the future is Volocopter and Lilium won’t exist in three to four years while EASA holds on to their present safety standards. Whereas with the FAA, the regulator has a smarter and more realistic approach.”
This frustration over the present rules is then aired by Sergio Cecutta. He points out, “China’s CAAC decided to carry out their own regulations and not take onboard FAA or EASA’s. So today, the industry faces three different systems for three of the largest markets in the world. The primary eVTOLs are not designed for individual countries, but constructed for a global market.They are highly expensive to bring to market where USD1 billion is a financial floor – not the ceiling.”
He continues, “We all want the highest levels of safety, of course we do, but the higher the level, the more expensive the aircraft becomes to certify. What happens if no market then exists, because it becomes too expensive to create, leaving aside the much needed infrastructure. Take vertiports, for example, where the FAA is being super conservative. The two regulators can’t even agree on the same symbol.”
Graham Warwick, Executive Editor of Aviation Week, affirms during the Webinar, “The industry desperately needs harmonisation.” He agrees with Cecutta, “Constructing aircraft under three different sets of aviation rules is simply not workable. Standardisation is essential, where more closely aligned regulations must come sooner rather than later.”
Meanwhile, how does the helicopter industry view the potential usurper of its market? Why not ask a helicopter pilot of 30 years who is also the Chief Executive of an emerging VTOL company.
Thomas Pfammatter (Credit: Air Zermatt)
Thomas Pfammatter is CEO of Dufour Aerospace and a highly experienced pilot. He flies for Swiss aviation company, Air Zermatt. Pfammatter has flown many thousands of helicopter hours. He disagrees that eVTOLs are safer. “Presently, an eVTOL’s safety is all theoretical. Until actual flights have occurred in real rather than simulated conditions, only then can correct assumptions be made. The more hours flown without problems, the safer an aircraft becomes.”
Pfammatter agrees with Moore. “Technical types of certification are important, but operational ones are critical. Only 10 to 15 percent of helicopter accidents are technical-related, while 85 to 90 percent are due to pilot error. It is the operational part that is fraught with danger. The same applies to eVTOLs, yet this percentage could be even higher, as we don’t know how to fly them yet.”
He says while the certification process of helicopters is similar to eVTOLs, given the fast-track path the latter is on, the processes are somewhat different. Some elements are more problematic like the certification of flight computers (10 to the minus 9), but eVTOLs have improved redundancy, in most cases, due to a multiple propulsion system, where if one fails others continue on. Unlike a helicopter, this should not lead to a catastrophic event. He accepts the EASA certification standard is very high and hard to attain.
Pfammatter then points to the problem of battery power. “eVTOLs are limited by their batteries. The longer the aircraft has been flying, so the less power available in an emergency situation. Here, helicopters are safer as they’re lighter and have more power to use.”
He then discusses the difficulties of today’s eVTOL safety.
“There is a major difference between flying an eVTOL via a simulator and flying one in real-life. Until you fly one physically, you don’t know how it actually flies. People say an eVTOL has a simplified control system and yes, in theory, an eVTOL is simpler than a helicopter to fly. However, there is a third dimension where a pilot must work with the surrounding energy during a climb or descent. A pilot needs to be aware of the constant changing environment, how the aircraft responds to air currents, weather etc.. There are many operational challenges an eVTOL pilot will need to face when physically flying which can’t be learned from a simulator.”
Joby Aviation Simulator
Therefore, you must have some sympathy for the world’s three major air regulators. A brand new emerging industry with all types of new aircraft from flying cars to eVTOLs, VTOLs to STOVL, not forgetting V/STOL and HeVTOLs alongside cargo and delivery drones. Then there are tilt-rotors, vectored thrust, multirotors, boxed wings, lift and cruise, folding wings etc. especially when the number one priority is to make them all safer than driving a car. And on top of this, is to then come up with a set of acceptable regulations to create the required infrastructure. It’s enough to give any regulator a throbbing migraine.
Robert Bassey (A Construction Engineer for the FAA) remarks during his lecture after Dave Webber, “If your aircraft, performance-wise, does not jive within our engineering brief, we encourage you to work with us to figure out what is appropriate for your particular craft. That is the caveat here.” Meanwhile, the pressure on the aircraft companies to progress as fast as they can towards commercial operations, before their financial investment runs out is pivotal, which only adds further pressure on the air regulators to support them.
Bassey says, “The FAA are very judicious. We want to ensure an acceptable high level of safety for the flying public. Yet, we are criticised that the regulatory process may not be keeping up with the pace of innovation. I want to assure you, we are moving as expeditiously as we can, with a safety goal at front and centre.”
Meanwhile, Pfammetter points out, “Batteries are the biggest weakness the eVTOL industry faces and why hybrid powered-systems are better. Pure electric aircraft are an ecological disaster for their power source is only good for three months tops before they get cooked and need to be replaced. This could cost an eVTOL company with a small fleet of aircraft, a further USD4 to 5 million a year. Then, while in use the batteries need to be charged every 30 minutes or so which can take over half an hour to achieve, where important passenger custom goes amiss. Short-term, where is the profit when each aircraft could cost up to USD8 million to construct? It will be the VTOLs like ours at Dufour and not the eVTOLs that will replace helicopters.”
Lilium Jet Displaying a Low Level of Noise
A major positive is the lower noise level for eVTOLs over helicopters. The often quoted comparison is 100 times quieter. Moore who is a specialist in this field, says, “I admit I have strong views over aircraft quietness, but this is for a good reason. Community acceptance is critical if this new industry is to succeed.”
He continues, “I have talked to cities about noise levels and what they will and won’t accept. The truth of the matter is, there’ll be quotas over how much noise a vertiport may accept. If noisy the aircraft will be allowed only a few operations. If really quiet, many more operations. Therefore, what revenue a company can attract is dependent on how quiet its craft is.” Adding, “By 2027/28 when companies begin scaling manufacturing, if they don’t have quiet aircraft, their business could be severely jeopardised.”
Meanwhile, Pfammatter believes the helicopter industry will remain, albeit smaller at around 20 percent of its present size, by either employing sling-loading ‘copters carrying heavy loads for special missions, particularly military ones, or where a craft requires to hover for long periods of time, whether to pick up injured personnel or dropping off a large group of soldiers into heavy-firefighting environments.
Fortunately, one aspect of this present controversial field a majority agree on will be the flight journey of an e/VTOL. It will be a fun and enjoyable experience for both operator and passenger. “I am looking forward to that,” enthuses Pfammatter. “Not only will these new aircraft be a pleasure to pilot, but the public will enjoy flying in them too.”
(Top image: www.gizchina.com)