How Vancouver’s largest helicopter operator is preparing for eVTOLs

By Brian Garrett-Glaser | November 23, 2020

Estimated reading time 14 minutes, 57 seconds.

Many industry insiders expect the greater Vancouver region to be a first-mover in advanced air mobility (AAM) for many reasons, including its highly-engaged stakeholder community and government actors, geographic limitations for ground-based transit and existing tolerance for helicopters.

Helijet eVTOL
Helijet is an active member of a stakeholder group working to bring eVTOLs and advanced air mobility to the Vancouver region. Helijet Image

With the recent release of economic, social and environmental impact reports funded by that stakeholder community, the Canadian Advanced Air Mobility Consortium (CAAM), interviewed Danny Sitnam, president and CEO of Helijet International, the region’s largest urban helicopter operator — poised to be a major player in the region’s future AAM sector. How are you preparing today for the introduction of eVTOL aircraft?

Danny Sitnam: What we have to do and continue to do is study. We’re trying to learn as much as we can about eVTOL, where it’s going to go and how we at Helijet can integrate these technologies into our existing business. I have a few more people coming into the program here to help us understand the infrastructure side, the aerospace side, and start understanding the bigger picture.

Danny Sitnam
Danny Sitnam founded Helijet in 1986 and has grown the company into a major operator of scheduled helicopter flights and air medical services in British Columbia. What are the questions you’re seeking answers to?

Danny Sitnam: We need to better understand the people that are involved in eVTOL and their long-term commitments. Where is the funding coming from to support these designers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that are building these fabulous machines? Are they going to be able to continue to move forward if, say, aircraft and airspace regulatory bodies pace behind the technology, as is usually the case? At some point in time, people’s (capital) patience starts to wear thin and the towel gets thrown in. These are a few of the issues we’re trying to better understand so we can pace ourselves against some of these stakeholders that are out there. Where do you think the early applications of these aircraft are going to be?

Danny Sitnam: We discuss this around the table at CAAM. We know that people on the ground are going to say, what’s in it for me, and so we need to demonstrate how this technology can help people. That means pursuing first responder opportunities — police, air medical — and equally humanitarian efforts, such as moving critical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) to remote communities that don’t have access by road or airstrip.

Some of the applications we see being explored today by our good friends at Indro Robotics and Drone Delivery Canada are cutting the path, as far as I’m concerned; their efforts are affording eVTOL to come into play and take on longer-haul, higher-payload capacity into underserved communities. This is the first step of opportunity for eVTOL development as it matures and communities start accepting these vehicles above their communities, and after this first phase, we can start presenting commercialization of passenger movement or large cargo pieces being transported. If you look at the various component pieces of AAM — aircraft, airspace management, infrastructure, regulatory considerations — do you believe they are progressing in unison, or are there elements of the ecosystem that are trailing behind?

Danny Sitnam: In a comical way, it’s a little bit of a horse race at times. Depending on the circumstance, one may move ahead from the other as dynamics in each area unfold. The regulatory bodies I believe are pretty in tune. They’re listening to many influencers stating, you’ve got to pay attention to this, this is real, and it is coming. The technology will always outpace and advance beyond the regulations, but we do have regulators participating with the rest of the stakeholders at a very early stage and this is very encouraging

With CAAM, we’re a big advocate on having Nav Canada and Transport Canada at the table, guiding us on what we have to do to move in unison with designers, OEMs and infrastructure requirements. Having these multi-stakeholder discussions is critical so we can as a group set the pace of where we’re going, instead of one sector saying they want to be ready in 2024, another aiming for 2026, and then regulators saying, no, it’s going to be 2030. Of course, it is taking time to have these discussions and bring in resources, partly due to COVID. Right now, everyone is concentrating on putting out economic fires in their respective backyard. How are you evaluating the various eVTOL designs that are under development, for Helijet’s purposes?

Danny Sitnam: We’re looking at a fairly broad spectrum of OEM designer-operators, trying not to put ourselves in a corner by selecting any one aircraft at the moment. Here in Vancouver, we do have a mature market that is very comfortable flying in VTOL equipment today; we’ve been doing it for 34 years. We’ve moved two-and-a-half million passengers over that period, and I think that market is going to accept the technology a little easier than a city or jurisdiction that is new to VTOL transportation.

So, when we look at the vehicles out there as a mature market, it’s a little bit like asking an Air Canada or Westjet, what size aircraft do you need? With our market right now, we have a good handle on how much demand there is and how many people we may have to move. We’re looking at eVTOL vehicles that can someday move the similar amount of people today that we currently move with say, a Sikorsky S-76 that can carry 10 or 12 people. We need vehicles at a lower acquisition and operating cost, that are more sustainable, and can travel at similar ranges and speeds that conventional VTOL can. We have an eye focused on that.

As an OEM develops a smaller vehicle that can carry three to five passengers, I want to know if they have scalability to bring that up to 10, 15 or 20 people eventually. So we’re looking at the OEMs’ ability and desire to scale up. Those that are already looking at eight to 10 passengers out of the gate — that catches our eye as an easier entry point because we have this mature market that requires that amount of capacity. Given the kind of range and payload characteristics you’re looking for, would it be fair to say that you are much more interested in hybrid or hydrogen-powered aircraft that pure battery-electric?

Danny Sitnam: I certainly have an eye to study that a little deeper, but I wouldn’t say we have moved away from electrics just yet. I have a lot of faith that electrics are going to deliver that eventually — I believe we’re going to solve battery capacity issues in the very near future. Do you see opportunity in smaller, three- to five-passenger aircraft we see under development today, such as by Joby and Hyundai?

Helijet eVTOL routes
A proposed hub-and-spoke service network using both traditional rotorcraft and eVTOLs. Helijet Image

Danny Sitnam: I see opportunity on a hub-and-spoke type of concept. We’ve drawn map metrics  where we show a Vancouver-Seattle hub, with the main route maybe being serviced by a conventional aircraft today, like a Sikorsky S-76 or S-92. And from there, the spokes into each hub are all the suburbia coming into the Vancouver Harbour heliport and the downtown Seattle heliport. Those spokes could be smaller vehicles, bringing three or four people in and connecting them to the long-haul service — relatively long-haul, anyways. There is a bit of that Uber think-through that is visualized. “I live in the Vancouver suburbs, and need to get to the downtown heliport because I have to go to Seattle today, or I have to go to some other long distance destination, so I’ll call up my three- or four-seat vehicle.” What will be some of the challenges of operating a mixed fleet of traditional and eVTOL aircraft? I think you addressed the opportunities in the previous question!

Danny Sitnam: Infrastructure would be the challenge, developing existing heliports so they can accommodate eVTOL technologies, having charging stations installed — we’re looking at that as we speak, to electrifying our existing heliports.

And then you’ve got the regulatory body that will decide, at some point in time, whether these vehicles will follow the same rules as conventional helicopters, from landing and take-off to heliport sizes, displacement between heliports and parking pads, approach and departure paths. I can’t speak for the FAA, but in Canada, if it’s an elevated heliport, will eVTOLs be under similar rules requiring Category A performance criteria? How existing infrastructure needs to be modified to accept possible new rules and technologies will be a challenge, and we’re going to have to work closely with the regulators and the developers on infrastructure criteria and design.

I do see that there has to be a transitional period. I do not have a vision where the VTOL to eVTOL infrastructure switch will be turned off or on overnight. There has to be a combined effort to transition to that over time using existing technologies and infrastructure. What advantages will existing helicopter operators like Helijet have as early operators of these new aircraft, and where will they require a shift in mindset?

Danny Sitnam: I believe the advantage that existing VTOL operators have, if I can put it simply, is that they’re used to going up and down! They understand the dynamics and environment of vertical lift and then forward speed after that. It’s in our corn flakes to deal with that every day.

The challenge will be the ability, desire and willpower to change. It’s one thing having a customer demanding that you make change as part of a contractual commitment — if you want to win my business, you’ll need to do this or that. But when you’re dealing with air operators that just go out there ad-hoc, that have otherwise spent millions and millions of dollars on asset purchases and infrastructure and ask them to change, I believe that will be challenging.

The aviation business in general is a very low-margin business to start with, so there isn’t a lot of reserve capital to make big changes quickly. The barrier for many vertical lift operators is getting the will and the desire to make change when, typically, you’re under-capitalized or you don’t have the financial strength, knowledge or time to make that change.

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