Advanced air mobility prompts new level of U.S. military, civilian coordination
By Paul Brinkmann|September 26, 2023
Range, payload of electric aircraft remain challenges for military utility
Hank Griffiths has piloted two prototypes of electric air taxis, one remotely and the other in the cockpit, under a U.S. Air Force program to test such aircraft and promote commercial development in the advanced air mobility sector.
Such government involvement, which is not limited to the Air Force, could help to speed up progress toward FAA certification of the aircraft, without cutting corners, he says. Normally, each branch of the military, along with FAA, would evaluate the airworthiness of such novel aircraft for their own certification needs, and NASA would sometimes conduct an airworthiness assessment as well.
However, in the last two years, the Air Force, Army and NASA have been trying to accelerate that process by — for certain aircraft — jointly assessing risks in pursuit of a single evaluation document, Griffiths says.
“This is an opportunity right now that we are recognizing with advanced air mobility, to start coordinating on a new scale with NASA, the FAA and the National Airworthiness Council,” Griffiths told me, the council being a gathering of certification officials from all branches of the military and FAA.
Griffiths says the military can accept FAA certification, but the FAA cannot currently accept military certification.
“We can accept risks where the FAA cannot,” he says. “Not that our commanders are putting airmen at risk, but a certain mission may outweigh the safety of the airmen, and we can control risk more so than the private sector.”
Griffiths says the Air Force’s AFWERX program and also NASA are encouraging FAA to increase reliance on aircraft assessments performed by military branches and by NASA, but he says that won’t be easy because FAA civil airworthiness processes are governed by law.
“We are hopeful that we will make progress with the FAA so that we can accelerate the civil market certification timeline,” Griffiths says.
Griffiths is a retired Air Force colonel and now the chief of airworthiness and test for AFWERX, the Las Vegas-based “innovation arm” of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. He has piloted an Alia aircraft, built by Vermont-based Beta Technologies, from its cockpit, and remotely piloted an S4 electric tiltrotor built by California-based Joby Aviation.
“We see [advanced air mobility] as the next revolution in aerospace. It is going to be the future,” Griffiths says. “But for today, it remains to be determined if there is a probable use case in the short term” for such aircraft in the military. “There’s a lot of pluses [for electric aircraft] but right now limited range is a factor, because batteries can only go so far. And useful load is also a factor because batteries are heavy. Maybe there’s another energy source, such as fuel cells — that’s what we believe.”
But the Air Force continues to test a variety of electric aircraft with an eye toward how they might be flown by any branch of the military, Griffiths says. Electric aircraft could ferry personnel or cargo in areas where fossil fuel is limited. Being quieter than fossil-fuel aircraft, they could perform discreet missions behind enemy lines, near the front lines of a battle, or transport government personnel in urban areas such as Washington, D.C.
Although run by the Air Force, AFWERX works with other branches in its Agility Prime program, which is aimed at “priming” private sector markets to produce novel aircraft that could benefit the military.
Each branch of the military has personnel who specialize in certifying aircraft for their branch, Griffiths says, and Army certification personnel are conducting airworthiness assessments with the Air Force.
“I probably will start with the Navy and the Marine Corps soon too, because they’re interested. So this Agility Prime program is generating participation,” Griffiths says. Each branch “will probably value something a little bit differently.”
AFWERX has agreed to pay Joby up to $131 million for up to nine aircraft, the first of which was delivered to Edwards Air Force Base earlier this month, for further testing by the military as the company pursues an FAA type certificate to allow commercial operations in 2025.
The agency awards $1.3 billion per year to companies working on technology innovations that may benefit the military.
“An investment of $10 million turns into hundreds of millions in private investment, because people say, oh, the Air Force is interested,” Griffiths says. “I believe we have accelerated the [AAM] industry by five years, not only by providing money but also access to vibration testing, wind tunnels — and things these companies would never have access to otherwise.”
No matter how involved the military is, FAA still “doesn’t do novel very well,” says Roger Connor, a curator of aeronautics for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. He points out that the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor has been certified for military use for over 20 years, but its civilian counterpart — the AgustaWestland AW609, as planned by Italy-based Leonardo — still hasn’t been certified.
“It’s difficult to establish safety and reliability when there’s no historical basis,” Connor says of novel aircraft designs.
Connor sees parallels between today’s electric aircraft development and a surge of interest in commercial helicopters in the early 1940s.
“[Igor] Sikorsky took the wraps off what he’d been doing with helicopters for the military in 1943, and it created a venture capital stampede,” he says.
Much like the claims heard today about electric aircraft, he says, there were “jokes about a helicopter in every garage after World War II, flying one from everyone’s backyard, owning a helicopter for the price of an automobile,” Connor says. “That hasn’t panned out.”
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