FAA statement on powered lift certification creates timeline uncertainty, industry leaders say
By Paul Brinkmann|May 19, 2022
Agency says new rules on craft that transition to winged flight will reflect the unique nature of vertical lift aircraft for advanced air mobility or “air taxis”
FAA’s recent decision to overhaul certification of aircraft that transition from vertical takeoff to winged flight, and the training and certification of pilots for them, has created uncertainty among the companies developing advanced air mobility aircraft for regional and urban transportation.
Powered lift aircraft have been rare in aviation, examples being versions of the Bell Boeing V-22 tiltrotor flown by the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy, and the AW609 from Italy-based Leonardo. But in the air taxi realm, dozens of companies are now designing and, in some cases, flying electric versions of such aircraft in preparation for their services. The designs offer the flexibility of operating from small airports, or vertiports, but also the aerodynamic efficiency of wings to generate lift during cruise.
AAM companies, most of which are no more than several years old, hope to be operational in the next few years, but FAA’s recent statements have cast some doubt on those ambitious timelines, according to industry leaders.
“Since 2016, we were going forward with this process of being able to certify these aircraft as airplanes with a vertical capability, but they [at FAA] now have reversed the way we’re going to certify,” said Pete Bunce, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, GAMA, at a congressional hearing on Tuesday, according to a livestream.
Bunce told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that AAM companies don’t know the impact of the FAA’s new rules “because we haven’t had meetings with the FAA” about the issue.
“For us to be able to meet the timelines we want with advanced air mobility, we’ve got to get through this process very quickly,” Bunce said. “We hope that you will help us hold FAA accountable to work their processes and make some changes so that we can get through the system.”
In response, U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., said “absolutely” and “if the approval system is going to be the throttle, then we’re going to run into some pretty significant problems.”
FAA said in a statement to me last week that rulemaking “will eventually be required to comprehensively include powered-lift in [its] regulatory framework.” A process for rulemaking can involve many public notices, hearings, requests for public comment, and revisions in multiple steps that can last years.
The FAA statement said that development work done by current AAM applicants “remains valid and the changes in our regulatory approach should not delay their projects.” But Bunce and others said they can’t determine the impact of FAA’s decisions on future applicants without more information.
FAA disclosed details of its new rulemaking in response to media questions about a May 9 report on the AAM industry from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The GAO report said FAA was attempting “to address issues related to assuring pilots have sufficient skills in multiple flight modes,” and that FAA planned to start rulemaking to incorporate powered lift aircraft into current operating regulations for airplanes.
“The agency said this action would enable pilot certification for these types of aircraft,” GAO said. “Officials said this rulemaking is intended to address some of the pilot certification and training issues for these types of aircraft and help ensure that FAA is able to certify appropriately qualified pilots when these aircraft enter service.”
According to FAA’s statement to journalists, it is seeking a “predictable framework that will better accommodate the need to train and certify the pilots who will operate” powered lift aircraft.
FAA said that as a “longer term” project, it would continue developing regulations for earning type certifications, but for now would certify powered lift under its “special class” process while using the performance-based airworthiness standards contained in Part 23 of the regulations for small airplanes.
Part 23 is the section of FAA regulations under which most AAM companies have been testing and developing their aircraft toward earning type certifications.
The FAA also is responding to rapid proliferation of technology that allows people to fly aircraft electronically, without manual controls, or so-called fly-by-wire technology, Jesse Crispino, chief operations officer for Dallas-based air taxi company Jaunt Air Mobility, said in an email.
Jaunt is developing its Journey aircraft, a small helicopter with wings and a slowed rotor to reduce drag.
“‘Fly-by-wire’ technology will alleviate a lot of the old-school challenges of learning how to fly. A pilot will be able to hover with 30 minutes of training in a simulator versus 12 hours in a Fly-by-Iron, legacy aircraft,” Crispino said.
But some vertical lift vehicles such as the Journey won’t fall within the powered lift definition, Crispino said.
“As a single, main rotor lifting-device aircraft, Jaunt’s Journey will still fall into the categories of Part 27/29 [as a helicopter] which have been long established,” he said. “No deviations are necessary for us at this point.”
FAA’s previous approach had been to accommodate novel aircraft types with exceptions in certification, but that approach may no longer be viable in the future due to the growth of the advanced air mobility industry, Walter L. Desrosier, GAMA’s vice president for engineering and maintenance, told me.
“Our understanding is they do not want to, cannot go down the path of treating every individual aircraft and operator by doing a bunch of exemptions and exceptions from all the operating regulations,” Desrosier said. “And so what they’re planning to do is update the operating rules to create a clear path and a single set of operating requirements for powered-lift aircraft.”