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For Matt Chasen, CEO of LIFT Aircraft, the strategy he’s following to bring his HEXA eVTOL aircraft to market is to steer clear from any complex certification processes with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
That’s what he told attendees during the Vertical Flight Society’s (VFS) Forum 78 event in Fort Worth, Texas, last week.
Speaking to eVTOL.com after his presentation, Chasen explained that it was always his expectation that the FAA would be cautious about certifying eVTOL aircraft, especially those intended for passenger carrying services.
“That’s expected from the FAA. That’s what they should be doing,” he said. “We think that there’s other good markets outside of passenger transportation to leverage eVTOL technology.”
That’s why he decided to design his HEXA personal eVTOL aircraft to fit under existing Part 103 regulations for an ultralight aircraft, geared toward recreation and sport use rather than air taxi operations.
“It’s not that we don’t want to work with the FAA, it’s that we chose a go-to market strategy and aircraft design that fit within existing FAA regulations,” he said.
The company plans to build vertiports in open, unpopulated areas to adhere to one of the limitations of Part 103 — the restriction to fly over congested regions. Its first vertiport is slated to open just outside Austin, Texas, and will house fleets of HEXA aircraft available for the public to rent and fly, with pilot training provided by LIFT.
Chasen also sees potential military applications for the HEXA aircraft. The company shared with attendees at Forum 78 its experiences as an early participant in the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF) Agility Prime program, which offers eVTOL developers access to testing resources and early military applications. It’s a program meant to offset some of the financial and regulatory risks of certifying novel aircraft.
Since joining the program in 2020, LIFT has checked off a number of milestones, including conducting flight tests under its Phase 2 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract.
It was through these flight tests that the company became confident enough in its design to begin producing an aircraft and delivering it to its first customer — the U.S. Department of Defense.
“We started producing aircraft in [February] 2021,” Chasen said. “I think that was the first eVTOL aircraft delivery into the Agility Prime program.”
A month later, LIFT received airworthiness approval for uncrewed testing, and today, the company is well into its crewed flight test program. As one of the few eVTOLs to support crewed flights, the HEXA even garnered the attention of broadcast journalist Anderson Cooper, who had his sights set on flying the aircraft for a segment of 60 Minutes featuring eVTOLs.
Under the Air Force’s guidance, LIFT is gearing up for its next milestones, which include parachute deployment, envelope expansion, acoustic testing analysis, environmental testing, and water landing.
By designing its aircraft to fall under Part 103 regulations, Chasen was able to avoid certifying his aircraft, steering clear of the regulatory hurdles that his peers are currently going through.
“We could not have done all of that had we needed to undergo FAA certification,” he said. “It’s the nature of Part 103. The requirements for safety are just lower. When you step into commercial passenger service, the safety expectations go up to airline levels of safety — and they should. EASA [European Union Aviation Safety Agency] has come out and their eVTOL requirements are 1 x 10–9 — one catastrophic accident per billion flight hours.”
Because of Part 103, Chasen is confident the HEXA aircraft can enter the market and begin offering first riders an opportunity to fly an eVTOL without having to go through type certification with the FAA.
But for LIFT’s fellow Agility Prime participants, Joby Aviation and Beta Technologies, avoiding the aviation authority isn’t possible if they want to bring their passenger carrying aircraft to market.
Until a few weeks ago, the FAA had told industry that companies developing fixed-wing eVTOL aircraft would have a clear path to certification through the agency’s Part 23 rules. That changed about 18 months ago when the FAA started hinting that there was a problem with certifying eVTOL pilots under Part 23.
“The agency determined that it didn’t have the legal authority to certificate VTOL-capable pilots for Part 23 aircraft,” Mike Hirschberg, executive director of VFS, told eVTOL.com.
To fix this oversight, the FAA decided to reclassify winged eVTOLs as powered-lift aircraft under its “special class” process in 14 Code of Federal Regulations 21.17(b), rather than as small fixed-wing aircraft under 14 CFR Part 23 rules.
Hirschberg said there were a “number of ways the agency could have addressed this, but it chose an approach that industry had significant issues with: using the 21.17(b) ‘special class’ aircraft.”
He said 21.17(b) was designed to certify powered-lift and other novel aircraft by combining airworthiness certification standards from Part 23 with Part 27 or 29.
This is the same certification approach the FAA took with the Leonardo AW609, which has experienced significant delays, Hirschberg said, due in part to the FAA’s lack of familiarity with advanced rotorcraft technology.
In a statement provided to eVTOL.com, the FAA promised that all the development work done by current applicants will remain valid, and its new regulatory approach shouldn’t impact certification timelines.
Both Joby and Archer Aviation shared similar messages during recent investor calls in an attempt to reassure shareholders that their investment in the eVTOL company remains secure. Archer CEO Adam Goldstein even went as far as to say that the FAA decision is “largely just an administrative change.”
With both companies targeting 2024 to bring their air taxis to market, easing investor concerns is crucial, as significant investments injected into the industry were likely based on the assumption that these eVTOL developers had a clear path to certification.
As for LIFT, the company has been able to make significant advancements with its aircraft without the guidance from the FAA, but the company is still keeping a close eye on the evolving regulations that might allow it to expand its business model beyond what Part 103 would allow it to do.
Chasen is patiently waiting for the FAA to release the final version of the Modernization of Special Airworthiness Certification (MOSAIC) that will reveal revised rules for light-sport aircraft.
Chasen said he believes the new regulation will include provisions for electric aircraft and different configurations for novel vehicles.
“It would be a special airworthiness certificate and you need a license to fly, but it would allow you to fly this aircraft over congested areas,” he said.
Chasen believes this certification will allow the company to unlock additional operational capabilities, potentially permitting LIFT to operate two types of aircraft — the current HEXA as an ultralight and a second aircraft with an airworthiness certificate under the FAA’s new regulation for this category.
But considering the FAA’s recent decision to change how it plans to certify fixed-wing eVTOL aircraft, questions remain about whether Chasen’s chosen path to FAA certification will be as smooth as he hopes.
“I certainly hope that there will be no mistakes in the new light personal aircraft rules,” he said. “If they put a limit on the number of motors or the total horsepower, that’s going to be tricky for a VTOL aircraft to be able to comply with. I hope they’re thinking about these things.”
Chasen said LIFT is engaging with the FAA through several industry groups and is paying attention to how these rules will be written. And with the support of the Air Force, Chasen is hoping the extensive flight data collected through the Agility Prime program will give the company an advantage in its type certification process.
“Over the next three to five years, we want to be doing thousands of flights a day, building actual statistical data that prove our aircraft meets whatever safety requirements the FAA ultimately chooses to impose on our type of product,” he said.