HAI Convention News

Advanced Air Mobility Pioneers Aim to Transform Vertical Flight

 - March 8, 2023, 4:27 PM

Advanced air mobility (AAM) revolutionaries took center stage at the Heli-Expo show this week, sharing their lofty plans for deploying eVTOL vehicles to revolutionize the way people and things get moved around. Assuming the pioneers can meet their ambitious targets for achieving type certification, the first commercial services could take to the air in 2025, and they are already painting an increasingly vivid picture of what the new wave of air transportation will look like.

Part of the picture includes the Norwegian Air Ambulance Foundation, which on Wednesday announced a partnership with Airbus to devise ways to deploy the manufacturer’s in-development CityAirbus NextGen aircraft for emergency medical flights. “The Foundation has always been at the forefront of medical innovation, most recently with dedicated research to integrate a CT scanner into a five-bladed H145 helicopter,” said Balkiz Sarihan, head of urban air mobility at Airbus. “We’re looking forward to working with it as a strategic partner to further develop the exact missions where our eVTOL’s capabilities would contribute to protecting citizens and making sure they can access effective healthcare in Norway.”

The not-for-profit group’s Leif Olestad told reporters at a briefing on the show floor that he and his colleagues want to identify ways to “deliver improvements to the rescue chain” that go beyond what helicopters achieve now, by shortening response times and improving outcomes for patients.

Explaining how Norway’s distinct and rugged geography requires versatile forms of air mobility to serve a mix of urban and rural communities separated by mountains and fjords, Olestad said new applications of advanced technology are the best response. “We don’t know yet what this could look like, but building the use cases for eVTOLs is a good first step,” he said. “We need optimism, realism, and knowledge.”

All of those attributes showed in HAI’s AAM Leaders panel session, which included executives from eVTOL developers Archer Aviation, Beta Technologies, and Jaunt Air Mobility. It also heard from two prospective operators, Blade Air Mobility and Bristow, as well as from the FAA on how the agency’s new Innovate 28 program aims to support initial trial operations in several U.S. early adopter communities by 2028.

Blade president and general counsel Melissa Tromkiel explained how the rideshare booking platform will deploy eVTOLs across its network of Part 135 operators to provide on-demand flights in vehicles carrying up to four or five passengers. With New York City already identified as an early use case for its business model, she revealed that Blade is also working on possible routes in and around Vancouver on Canada’s west coast and along France’s Cote d’Azur.

At Bristow, chief transformation officer David Stepanek is expanding the scope of the long-standing helicopter operator’s business-to-business model. He stressed that eVTOLs will not replace its existing rotorcraft fleet, but rather provide, “a parallel path to open things up for passengers.” He called on his fellow AAM trailblazers to share the load in developing AAM’s ecosystem by “collaborating on safety and operations and then compete on the commercial side.”

Last year, Bristow made a commitment to add up to 55 of Beta’s Alia 250 eVTOLs to its fleet, and the manufacturer recently conducted a trial flight at New York-area Westchester County Airport with Blade. “Our biggest focus is on how we bring this [AAM] to market safely, and we’re sharing data with the regulator to drive the path to safe and reliable operations,” explained chief revenue officer Patrick Buckles. At Beta’s own expense, it has already established testbed vertiports at 10 U.S. locations.

Archer chief operating officer Tom Muniz explained that the early routes flown by its four-passenger Midnight eVTOL will connect Manhattan with Newark Liberty International Airport by customer United Airlines. The California-based start-up, which plans to manufacture its vehicles at a new site in Georgia with automotive group Stellantis, expects early AAM markets to start with just 20 or 30 aircraft.

“We’re not trying to replace helicopters,” Muniz assured the Heli-Expo audience. “We’re trying to make that incredible experience much more commonplace and affordable to many more people.”

So, assuming the AAM sector scales up at the rate its advocates expect with tens if not hundreds of thousands of aircraft, how is the air-crew-starved industry going to find enough pilots to fly them all?

Beta and Archer accept that will present a significant challenge, but believe the novelty and energy behind the new mode of air transportation could re-energize the workforce. “We think there is some synergy between this need and the Part 121 [commercial airline] pilot shortage,” Muniz maintained. “United is excited to give pilots coming out of its Aviate flight training school [the opportunity] to fly our Part 135 operations to get up to the hours they need.”

Buckles agreed that AAM could become a conduit for attracting new pilots and technicians while stressing that the new sector will need a solid plan to ensure that the right skills are in place. “With all-electric aircraft, there are things that could hurt you really quickly if you don’t have the right training,” he concluded.