“Having a blast” — that’s how Angelo Collins describes his experience so far as executive director at the Vertical Flight Society (VFS) since June 2023.
Vertical caught up with the aerospace engineer, who preceded VFS in a position at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), to hear his reflections, current activities and plans for the future.
Collins had already worked with VFS in the past, serving as administrative chair of the first VFS eVTOL event. (It later evolved into VFS’s annual Electric VTOL Symposium, the largest eVTOL event in the world with 500-plus attending in January 2023. VFS also hosts the longest-running vertical flight technical conference in the world, the Annual Forum and Technology Display.)
Most of his career was at DARPA but he also worked at Skyworks and said both positions gave him a good understanding of how the U.S. Department of Defense functions and how money is allocated.
“My master’s degree before that was in engineering administration, and along the way, I looked for opportunities to lead engineers,” he said. “I understand what makes them tick — being one of them — and I truly enjoy working with them. I also was involved in starting new programs, including a classified space program right before I left DARPA, and started climbing the management ladder.”
Late in 2022, Collins was speaking with former VFS executive director Mike Hirschberg about his announcement to the board of directors to step down.
“I was not initially interested in the job and I don’t think a lot of people were,” Collins reflected. “Leading a non-profit is not for everyone, but I consulted my family and colleagues and I realized it would be a great opportunity. I love working with people and helping them. I find that more rewarding than engineering. I enjoy vertical flight research, I’ve worked on a lot of vertical flight projects, and I know a lot of the people. It’s a pretty small community, so I threw my hat in.”
But until he was on the job, Collins hadn’t yet fully grasped the size of the VFS community.
“I’ve realized it’s a prolific society collectively, not by number of staff — there are eight of us — but through so many volunteers,” he said. “We’re a small organization, but with people volunteering hundreds of thousands of hours to VFS activities, what we’re able to accomplish is huge. The volunteers always work really well together even though they’re at different companies. VFS is the sum of its many parts, and I’m glad to be one part.”
For example, Collins reported that over 100 students have volunteered to help with each Forum event. Every two weeks, leading up to 2024 Transformative Vertical Flight event in Santa Clara, California, VFS has a call with the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter, including numerous NASA Ames volunteers. There is a huge volunteer technical team of about 80 sorting through the record number of more than 350 abstracts submitted for the event. And on and on it goes.
In Collins’ view, VFS “punches above its weight” in the international community.
“We’re starting to open up chapters in Thailand and other countries. We’re involved in the European Rotorcraft Forum, and we host many events that involve the international vertical flight community every year. We also lend support to many other international events, such as Airtec and European Rotors. We do a lot for our size, and I want to keep that momentum going. I’m exited to have this vote of confidence to lead us in the future.”
At the same time, Collins was not surprised by the strength of the VFS staff, nor the overall state of the organization under 12 years of Hirschberg’s leadership. He noted that some of the staff have been on board for 20 years, and everyone is capable of managing themselves. Since 2014, Hirschberg grew corporate membership from about 70 to more than 170 today, and individual members have expanded from 5,500 to 6,500. As a member-driven organization, those numbers have greatly helped with financial stability and boosted the reach of VFS.
Speaking of members, Collins wants to shine a brighter industry light on engineers, including engineering undergrad and grad students, which is part of the VFS mission. However, those in other areas of study are welcome within the vertical flight community.
“I want to help engineering students succeed and ensure the industry is healthy and getting the R&D [research and development] money it deserves,” he said. “My number one goal is to get more funding for universities. We lobby in collaboration with the Vertical Lift Consortium to ensure costs for Ph.D. students are covered, and we want to up that to $10 million a year. It’s been stuck at $4.5 million for a while, and we want to make sure the [funding is] good at the three Vertical Lift [Research] Centers of Excellence and their affiliate schools.”
In terms of other funding, Collins noted that the large vertical flight-aligned defense contractors are competing for the same small piece of the larger defense R&D funding pie, unlike what is dedicated to hypersonics or missiles.
“We need vertical flight to have a larger slice of that DOD [Department of Defense] funding,” he said. “No more scraps.”
However, Collins added that “understandably, there hasn’t been a great return on investment for the money put into vertical flight. You can spend on the development of a new rotor design, and if it only proves to offer an incremental improvement in performance, there are those who question whether that was worthwhile. But that research can lead to other breakthroughs. We see a shift now with more private investment, especially in eVTOL and hybrids because the cost of entry can be lower. And even the Army is talking about how investments in rotor blade sustainment and drivetrain design has been neglected. It’s been 30 years since there was significant investment there, so maybe it’s time.”
To engage more students, Collins is creating a VFS Student Council — a centralized body of leaders. The executive roles are filled, and Collins is in the process of filling 22 director roles. One is curriculum director, who examines rotary-wing flight curriculum content at colleges. This director and his or her team may only be able to audit one or two schools in a year, “but it’s a start,” Collins said. “And they are lobbying schools where there is no rotary-wing course in the engineering program to get one. Another director [position] is Forum director, who is trying to help get more students to attend the event [in Montreal] next year.”
This growing body of VFS-affiliated students is also an important resource for Collins and industry as well.
“The more interaction VFS has with students, the better we can be a good liaison between students and companies,” he said. “That’s where VFS can do more. Recently I went up to the University of Maryland for an event and I talked to a lot of students. The next day, I was on a flight with one of the CEOs of the big companies, and I relayed to her directly what the students said.”
And what are students thinking about, talking about, excited about? Well, interest is huge in working on eVTOLs and startup environments, he said.
“These students want to work for themselves and they want to try to go their own way,” Collins said. “I’ve sort of been sounding the alarm to the big helicopter guys that these kids may not want to work for you. They have more choices now. Some of the top graduate talent is going to the eVTOL companies and this is going to hurt Bell, Sikorsky and the other big guys in the long run if there’s no mitigation. These kids are super motivated about electric aircraft. They want to be part of something that’s new to the world. And yes, Bell and Sikorsky and others have divisions that have a startup type of environment, but we need more of that.”
Collins also wants to make every VFS resource that’s over a year old — over 10,000 papers, video content, etc. — available to members.
“This will make membership more valuable,” he said. “It will help bring more kids in, help them and help companies do research. It will build excitement.”
Hobby not job
Collins again reiterated how much he’s enjoying leading VFS.
“Our team needs little direct management and I get to run with my ideas,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like a job, but a hobby that you love. One example of a little project recently is VFS chapter boundaries. They were set up with zip code delineations and I wanted to map it all to see if it could use adjusting. And when you look at the map, changing things here and there makes more sense, so I did that. It’s great to have the freedom to look into things and run with them. It’s been a blast so far, and I can’t believe they pay me for this.”