On The Radar
The FAA provoked rapidly rising blood-pressure levels among eVTOL aircraft developers with its awkwardly communicated change in approach to certifying the new vehicles. The apparent policy reversal hinged on a determination that winged eVTOL designs meeting the U.S. air safety regulator’s definition of “powered lift” could not be certified or operate as conventional “airplanes.”
This implied that the aircraft concerned would need to be regulated under the FAA’s Section 21.17 (b) rules, rather than the 21.17 (a) requirements. The latter rules provide the foundation for several of the G-1 “certification basis” issue papers already assigned to several eVTOL developers, following years of diligent preparation.
Desperate to avoid panic among investors, the leaders of publicly listed companies such as Joby and Archer scrambled to pass off the reported reversal of regulatory approach as the exact opposite of a big deal. The FAA itself also engaged in what the British media would characterize as a “reverse ferret” move—when public figures seek to diplomatically step back from an unpopular position in the wake of adverse media attention. The phrase has its origins in the medieval sport of ferret-legging in which contestants compete to see how long they can endure a sharp-toothed ferret while forcibly accommodated in their underwear, generating levels of anguish that perhaps approximate those recently endured in the board rooms of some eVTOL pioneers.
However, the Vertical Flight Society (VFS), the respected professional body that has done much to encourage and support the development of VTOL aircraft, remains deeply troubled by the unsettling approach to regulating the fast-emerging new sector of aviation. It sees the FAA’s position as seriously flawed and has spent much of the past month or so trying to offer some objectivity on the issue.
The outcome of this work is an excellent article by VFS executive director Mike Hirschberg, just published in the group’s Vertiflite magazine. He carefully unravels the confusing accounts of the FAA’s new position, concluding that the agency has not treated the industry fairly after a decade of time-consuming collaboration to establish a sound regulatory structure for the new eVTOL vehicles.
The article provides a clear explanation of why the FAA’s reshaping of its regulatory premises and expectations matters. It untangles the detail on why the switch from 21.17 (a) to 21.17 (b) has the potential to be such a spanner in the works, and why, in the VFS’s view, the change is so misguided.
But the bottom line is that what the FAA says goes, at least for companies looking to market their new aircraft and transportation solutions in the U.S. and other markets that follow the agency’s lead. “We feel that the FAA made a bad call on forcing winged eVTOL airplanes to certify as Powered-Lift, but they are the only game in town,” Hirschberg concluded. “So, the industry has to keep playing ball with them and ensure that they execute according to their game plan—or everyone will be losers.”
Addressing this month’s FAA-EASA aviation safety conference, acting FAA administrator Billy Nolen said the agency still expects to be able to certify the first eVTOL aircraft in 2024—no more than 30 months from now. VFS doesn’t mince its words in urging FAA officials to get their act together if this pledge is to be meaningful.
“The good news is that there is now an accepted means of certification for winged eVTOL aircraft, and the agency has publicly stated that it intends to support the aggressive timelines that the eVTOL companies have been working towards,” said Hirschberg. “Now comes the hard part. It has often taken the agency a decade to create new rules. The FAA must now move at speeds it has seldom ever achieved in the past. If it fails, the U.S. will lose leadership in eVTOL, and the rest of the world will move forward without it, much like what happened in the drone industry two decades ago.”