When the Federal Aviation Administration last year decided to certify winged electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles as powered-lift aircraft rather than as small airplanes with special conditions, the agency pointed to pilots as the reason why. Existing regulations for airplanes and helicopters, the FAA said, “did not anticipate the need to train pilots to operate powered-lift, which take off in helicopter mode, transition into airplane mode for flying, and then transition back to helicopter mode for landing.”
The agency said at the time that it would “continue to develop its powered-lift regulations to safely enable innovation with regard to powered-lift operations and pilot training.” One year later, in June 2023, it published its first stab at those rules in the form of a proposed Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR), which creates a path for commercial airplane and helicopter pilots to add a powered-lift category rating to their existing pilot certificates.
The comment period for the draft SFAR closed on August 14. Now that industry has had a chance to weigh in, it appears that the shift to a powered-lift framework, rather than facilitating pilot certification, has created new complications that the FAA will have to address as part of its rulemaking process. Manufacturers contend that the requirement for a powered-lift category rating, rather than just a type rating for each aircraft, will greatly increase pilot training costs with no clear safety benefit. That’s because while airplanes, for example, share broadly similar flight characteristics with other airplanes, there’s enormous variation in the powered-lift models coming to market — something the FAA itself admits.
The eVTOL sector’s response to the SFAR shows a level of coordination and political mobilization that is rare for the industry and for general aviation in particular. New Jersey Congressman Jeff Van Drew even weighed in on the SFAR directly, describing it as “concerning and disappointing” in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Van Drew is a sponsor of an amendment to the House FAA reauthorization bill that would require the FAA to generally follow the industry’s recommendations for powered-lift rulemaking, notably through the development of a “practical pathway for pilot qualification and operations” and adoption of performance-based energy reserve requirements.
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