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FAA’s eVTOL rulemaking will also impact Leonardo AW609

By Elan Head | November 22, 2022

Estimated reading time 6 minutes, 53 seconds.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) effort to define operating rules for electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft is also establishing the U.S. regulatory framework for the Leonardo AW609, and points to an entry into service for the long-delayed civil tiltrotor sometime in 2024.

The Leonardo AW609 is expected to be the first aircraft to enter service under the FAA’s powered-lift regulatory framework now in development. Here, the first production AW609 takes to the air in October. Leonardo Photo

Earlier this year, the FAA decided to certify winged eVTOLs like those being developed by Joby Aviation as powered-lift aircraft, similar to the AW609. That has necessitated the development of a Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) to create operating rules for these novel aircraft, which combine characteristics of airplanes and helicopters.

According to Walter Desrosier, vice president of engineering and maintenance for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), industry expects the FAA to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for the SFAR in the first half of 2023, and a final rule in the second half of 2024. That schedule is critical to meeting the ambitious timelines of eVTOL startups that aim to launch commercial service in 2025.

But it will also impact commercialization of the AW609, which is undergoing its initial type certification with the FAA. While the AW609 could conceivably begin operations before the final rule is in place, Leonardo and its customers will at least need clarity on what the FAA intends to require in order to move forward with pilot training and operational planning.

“The NPRM is going to be the critical milestone,” Desrosier said, explaining that “when the FAA issues the NPRM, basically the FAA will be issuing its proposed standards for operations, for licensing.” That guidance could potentially form the basis for operations specifications that would facilitate deployment of the AW609 even if there are delays in the rulemaking process, he suggested.

A Leonardo spokesperson said by email that the company continues to work closely with the FAA on powered-lift operations and expects them “to release a notice for public comment in the very near future. The FAA is well aware of the AW609’s progress and we remain confident that their rulemaking will support the aircraft’s entry into service. We believe the 609 will be certified with its own certification basis in advance of the SFAR.”

On Nov. 21, the FAA released another NPRM that updates its air carrier definition to include powered-lift operations, which the FAA said “lays the foundation that will allow operators to use powered-lift aircraft.”

There has already been substantial effort invested in thinking through operational concepts for the AW609, which has been flying in prototype form for nearly 20 years. In 2019, the International Civil Aviation Organization published guidance for member states on how to implement standards and recommended practices for tiltrotors, with the overly optimistic assumption that the first civil-certified tiltrotors would begin operating the same year.

Desrosier said that when the FAA decided to proceed with a powered-lift SFAR, GAMA developed industry consensus recommendations for the FAA that “adopted exactly the framework that was in the ICAO document,” with some additional recommendations that were appropriate for eVTOLs. “For the Leonardo tiltrotor, everything in there is already addressed properly,” he said, because that’s what the authors had in mind when the guidance was developed.

Notably, GAMA is recommending that pilot licensing be handled through type ratings specific to each powered-lift aircraft model, because of the lack of a common interface between the various eVTOL and tiltrotor aircraft coming to market. According to Desrosier, “our recommendation is that the pilots that can come into the training to obtain a powered-lift type rating can be either an airplane pilot or a rotorcraft pilot, and . . . the type rating course might have some nuances to address those differences.”

Creating a path for existing airplane and helicopter pilots to be able to fly the AW609 will be critical for staffing the aircraft, said Bryan Willows, program manager for advanced air mobility at Bristow Group. Bristow is a launch customer for the AW609 as well as for multiple eVTOL models.

Willows previously flew the Bell-Boeing MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor in the U.S. Marine Corps, and holds an FAA powered-lift pilot certificate on the basis of that experience. But he said that the number of former military tiltrotor pilots available to fly the AW609 is extremely limited, especially now that the FAA has made it easier for them to credit their experience toward requirements at part 121 airlines, which have been on an aggressive hiring spree.

“There’s no real way for us to hire the tiltrotor pilots we need, unless the SFAR allows us to train pilots with existing commercial helicopter or airplane pilot licenses,” Willows told Vertical. He added that reserve fuel requirements, which differ between helicopters and airplanes, are another powered-lift unknown that could impact how Bristow deploys the AW609.

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