Former acting FAA chief explains decision to join air taxi startup Archer

Billy Nolen says he’s confident FAA will preserve U.S. aviation leadership

Billy Nolen left FAA in early June after 15 months as acting administrator. On Tuesday, Nolen revealed his new role: chief safety officer at Archer Aviation. The California air taxi developer is targeting early 2025 for beginning passenger flights with its Midnight vertical-lift aircraft, which will be mass produced by automobile giant Stellantis. A graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, Nolen piloted TH-55, UH-1 and OH-58 helicopters for the U.S. Army, as well as Beech Baron, Beechcraft U-21, and Beechcraft C-12 and C-12+ aircraft. He later worked as a pilot for American Airlines for 26 years, flying Boeing 757s, Boeing 767s and McDonnell Douglas MD-80s. I spoke to him about his career move to Archer via video call from his new office in Silicon Valley. Here is our conversation, lightly edited.

Q: Why did you decide to leave government service and enter the private sector at this time?

A: I felt there was a good opportunity when I decided to join the FAA nearly 18 months ago. I had arrived with some specific goals in mind about how to continue to expand safety management systems across the entire aviation ecosystem. And we also wanted to continue to extend America’s global leadership around the world. And certainly, I hope to continue that. I wanted the FAA to be a key enabler on what comes beyond the jet age, of this new market called advanced air mobility. And so we rewrote the proposed rules for how pilots will operate these novel aircraft, and a plan for how to integrate them into the national airspace, and we set our design standards for vertiports. Having given the government and the military almost 20 years, I felt it was time. I liked the tempo I was seeing in private industry. So that just felt like a natural transition to the next chapter of my career.

Q: Why did you choose Archer, and what will you do there as chief safety officer?

A: I saw an opportunity to come aboard with a very capable executive team, and I believe very strongly in [Archer CEO] Adam Goldstein’s vision for where Archer is going, and also the strong Archer partnerships with United Airlines and Stellantis, with an incredibly talented team of 600 plus Archers — what we call Archer employees. Their aircraft is very much a certifiable aircraft. They already have a very strong safety culture. In my role, we will continue to evolve our safety culture, and that’s a sort of broad brush of why I’m here.

Q: How will you comply with FAA’s post-employment ethics policy, which says you can’t represent a company in any official FAA proceedings?

A: Well, I’m involved throughout every part of Archer’s operation, from how we operate, how we fly and what the rules are, but I am not the face or the voice directly in front of the FAA or the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] or the White House, for that matter. We have a very, very capable team. I will help inform our team in terms of strategy, so I’m obviously a very crucial part. But I’m just not that voice talking directly to the FAA, which is forbidden for the next year by the FAA standards.

Q: I’ve been hearing from many experts now that a “culling” of the AAM industry is imminent, that many companies may drop out soon due to lack of funding. What is your perspective about this possibility?

A: Development of a novel aircraft design is a very expensive undertaking, right? You need capital. It’s all about the ability to actually get a certifiable product to market. That’s the tall order. Now, what I can tell you about Archer is that we’ve got a very strong plan in place with a sense of priorities. We are absolutely focused on getting to commercial scale of operations. It is about delivering a product to market that is certifiable, safe and fit for public service. So for those that either don’t have the capital to do that, some will have problems. Bottom line is, I like to say that museums are full of concepts and ideas that never made it to market.

Q: Are the timelines that many electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft developers are targeting to achieve certification and begin commercial operations overly ambitious?

A: We have a very robust plan to ensure we get there. The FAA has a framework in place now for how you certify the vehicle itself and a draft proposal on how the pilots will operate these vehicles. [Read my story about that proposal here.] What I said when I was the administrator is that we will be ready when the first airplane is ready to be certified. I can tell you [Archer] is working on that timeline, and our focus is to have the Midnight eVTOL certified next year and being in operations in 2025.

Q: Regarding that draft notice of the rulemaking released last week, do you think FAA is moving fast enough to ensure safe commercial operations? Will the U.S. move quickly enough to compete with Europe and China and others in advanced air mobility?

A: Let me just say very emphatically: I do not see the U.S. losing its preeminence as the world’s strongest, most robust regulator. As FAA administrator, I had nearly 45,000 employees. By comparison, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency has about 10,000 total employees. It is a great organization. But we are not going to cede our authority in U.S. aviation leadership; we have no intent of losing our global leadership. And I think you see that coming directly from the administration itself.

Q: I’ve been hearing about concerns that there’s a talent exodus from FAA to the private sector right now. Do you think that’s true, and why or why not?

A: It is not the case. Political appointees, leaders like me, come and go. But you look at the professional average tenure at FAA, and it’s 25-plus years. People who have spent a career at FAA may go off and do other things, but the Department of Defense and the FAA are probably the most respected federal branches of government around the world. The agency is in good hands with the administration’s appointee [for FAA acting administrator], deputy transportation secretary Polly Trottenberg.

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Former acting FAA chief explains decision to join air taxi startup Archer