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Discussing diversity, equity and inclusion in aviation with Overair’s Valerie Manning

By Jen Nevans | March 24, 2023

Estimated reading time 19 minutes, 53 seconds.

Former Airbus executive Valerie Manning is one of the latest aviation experts to join California eVTOL developer Overair as the company’s chief commercial officer. As a Black woman who has worked in the aerospace industry for more than three decades, Manning talks to Vertical about the need for companies to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion as a way to address workforce shortage and ensure the future of the nascent industry is equipped with skilled workers.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Former Airbus executive Valerie Manning is one of the latest aviation experts to join California eVTOL developer Overair. Overair Image

Vertical: Can you provide a brief overview of your aviation background and how you landed at Overair?

Valerie Manning: I’m an aerospace engineer by education. I served a full career in the U.S. Air Force, both on active duty and in the reserves. After a stint at McKinsey & Company, where I also served aerospace companies, I moved to Airbus where I spent almost 20 years. During my Airbus career, I became a professional pilot and flight instructor.  

Given my background designing aircraft, understanding how they operate and the issues they face, as well as knowing how to fly them and experiencing developing successful businesses around them, I have seen aviation from a variety of perspectives. I have experience on the military side, along with commercial, OEM, airlines, lessors, technology, operations, and financial. I found it quite exciting to make a career step to eVTOL — an emerging branch of the industry and an innovative approach to aviation, helping to address one of the issues we and many industries face: sustainability.

Sustainability is a broad and deep term — ranging from energy sources to manufacturing processes to social acceptance. Coming to Overair was a lot about applying all I have learned over the years into this new innovative area and helping to bring it to fruition.

Vertical: As a successful aviation executive, what experiences can you share as a Black woman working in this field, and what lessons have you learned over the years?

Valerie Manning: You know, I’ve just moved back to the U.S. after almost 17 years being based in Europe, and all of my roles over that time have been global. I’ve traveled around the world a lot. Sometimes being a woman — or being a racial minority — was a non-issue, and sometimes it was an issue.

For example, being responsible for Airbus’s relationship with all the airlines around the world, I’ve been in situations where I’m in a country with an airline and nobody would shake my hand because I was a woman. That was just the culture. I’ve also been in situations where a customer or supplier assumed I was supporting the team, rather than leading it. Though such experiences are disappointing and frustrating, they are unfortunately not surprising.

At times in my career, it has been both a benefit and a detriment to be a woman, or to be Black, or to be an American. You learn to navigate those moments. There were a few times where I’ve drawn a line, but in general, I think it’s a learning experience for me, and if I handle it properly, also a learning experience for whomever I am facing. There are even pros and cons to the fact that people generally don’t forget meeting you — since you stand out in the crowd and in the industry.

Valerie Manning
Valerie Manning is the chief commercial officer at Overair. Overair Image

Being a woman, I certainly champion gender equality. However, in some cases, there is less attention to and a more complex relationship around racial recognition.

In some parts of the world, racism is a difficult topic to address, as they don’t want to talk about race at all, because they tell themselves that to acknowledge race means to acknowledge inequality. And if they don’t talk about it — if they are ‘color blind’ — there’s equality. So how do you respect that point of view while still working to ensure equal opportunities?  It’s an ongoing challenge.

Vertical: Just like all other industries, we know that there is going to be a critical shortage in the aviation workforce, and with the eVTOL sector requiring very specific skills, there is a need for industry to look beyond traditional avenues of recruiting. What strategies do you think the eVTOL industry should adopt to improve recruitment and retainment?

Valerie Manning: First of all, be attractive. I think with DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] and in the [eVTOL] sector that we’re in, it’s not a choice. If we want to survive as an industry, if we want to advance and grow, we need to expand the group of people we’re trying to reach.

Accessing new groups of people takes outreach and some thought. Who has everything we need but is not thinking to come to us? Let’s go to them. For big aviation and eVTOL, go after the potential future pilot and mechanics and operations planners who maybe aren’t thinking about us.  For aerospace in general, even engineers are going to companies that they think are ‘cool’ or that champion their values. That’s one opportunity that we have in eVTOL is that we are cool, and we are one branch attempting to create a less polluting form of local and regional travel. It’s something new, different and innovative.

Vertical: In your experience, has the aviation sector traditionally been proactive at embracing diversity, equity and inclusion as a means of recruiting skilled workers? How can the industry improve in this area?

Valerie Manning: Proactive? I would say no. Talking about DEI is not being proactive enough. We need to act, to lean forward.

It’s tough because we want to get young people interested in the sector, but we don’t just need people who have a major in aerospace engineering or who started flying at a young age. We must compete for talent that is not uniquely dedicated to aerospace and aviation, and this applies across the board. If we want to reach underrepresented groups, such as women and ethnic minorities, we have additional challenges to address.

The industry also needs to focus on the recruiting gap. It’s not just about getting people to see us. We need to have leaders in place, so the prospective communities have something to aspire to. It matters that you see someone who looks like you in leadership.

Vertical: What message or advice do you have for young people of an underrepresented group, as you call it, who are considering aviation as a future career path? 

Valerie Manning: It depends on what group and where. I try to have a global view. Generally, my advice is to not be shy. Don’t feel like you can’t speak up, or you can’t go somewhere. Seek people who are where you would like to be, and ask about how to get started, how to advance. As a military veteran, I would also advise not to forget about the military as an aviation destination.

The onus is very much on the industry to be accessible and to reach out. If you see somebody in a minority group, who takes the initiative and says, ‘I want to be a pilot. I want to be a technician. I want to be in aviation,’ that person is probably used to having to fight for what they have. We need to be accessible to them and not make it feel like a fight.

We should also try to have a resurgence in trades. For example, in eVTOL, we’re going to need not only hundreds of thousands of pilots but hundreds of thousands of mechanics and technicians. These are extremely well-paying jobs that are extremely technical, and that don’t necessarily require a college degree. Let’s be sure to push that message as well.

Overair is in the process of producing its first full-scale vehicle that the company plans to fly toward the end of 2023. Overair Image

Vertical: Turning to Overair, you started your post as chief commercial officer in September 2022. What can we expect to see from you in your new role at Overair, and what are your prospects or plans for the company and the Butterfly eVTOL program?

Valerie Manning: My role is broader than what most people consider a typical chief ‘commercial’ officer. Of course, there are the commercialization and go-to-market aspects, as we need to define the opportunity, properly price the aircraft and the service, choose the markets that make the most sense, and uncover financing opportunities for the assets. 

I am also responsible for creating the product requirements, industrial design, government affairs, business development, and in-service approach of the OEM and the mobility operations — including, for example, flight and technical support. The existing Overair team had brilliantly started and advanced much of this. I am bringing my experience to try to help guide and accelerate the effort. We’re growing up fast at Overair, and we are working on ensuring this company has the maturity to go the distance.

In 2023, you will see some finalization of the strategic supplier selection for our certified vehicle.  We are also refining our go-to-market plan. In addition to manufacturing our vehicles, we are also going to operate, especially early on. Across the industry, there are no true operators today, so we need to be able to ensure that any prospective customer knows how to operate our vehicle in the safest and most efficient manner. Simply building and delivering them is not enough.

It should be noted that many building blocks that will be put in place in 2023 revolve around software and philosophy. eVTOL is a natively digital space, from the fly-by-wire aircraft to the digital operations and documentation management. 

Vertical: Can you share with our readers any insight into the development, flight testing, and certification of the Butterfly eVTOL aircraft?

Valerie Manning: In 2022, we concentrated on full-scale tests of the most complex aspect of the vehicle, which is the propulsion system. Now that we’ve done that, we’re in the process of producing the first full-scale vehicle that we plan to fly toward the end of 2023. We could have flown earlier, but we wanted to make sure that we maintain an efficient path to certification. We wanted to understand the at-scale elements before we fly, so that right after that flight test vehicle comes our certifiable vehicle.

Therefore, in parallel to finalizing production and integration of the full-scale prototype, we’re making some of the final decisions around our first certifiable vehicle that will adapt as necessary from what we learn from our flight test.

We are working very closely with the FAA aircraft certification and policy offices to establish the airworthiness criteria and certification plans for our aircraft. This is where our strategy as a fast follower pays dividends since it allows us to more efficiently move through that process, yet still have significant influence over the general regulatory requirements applicable to the industry as a whole. We expect to obtain our type certification in the second half of the decade. I’d love to give you a specific date, but it wouldn’t do much good because then I’d have to go back and revise it.

Overair expects to obtain type certification for its Butterfly eVTOL in the second half of the decade, believing its strategy as a fast follower will pay dividends since it allows the company to more efficiently move through the certification process. Overair Image

Vertical: Can you share what the commercialization plans are for the Butterfly aircraft, including potential applications and launch markets?

Valerie Manning: We have some specific use cases in mind, but we’re not disclosing that yet. I think the most anticipated use case across the space is urban mobility — mobility within a city and then out to an airport, for example, on the outskirts of the city. In addition, given the size, the capacity, and the performance capability of Butterfly, we’re also looking at other use cases — such as cargo, and medevac. We are working with local stakeholders and partners, and we are crystalizing launch markets. That will be part of what you should hear more about in 2023.

Vertical: Can you talk about what’s on the horizon for the company? Are there any upcoming partnerships or funding opportunities that Overair is exploring?

Valerie Manning: Almost any eVTOL player advancing today acknowledges that they need more funding to get to certification because certifying aircraft is certainly not cheap. We’ve always had the approach that our funding milestones go with what makes sense for our technical milestones. We just had another funding round in June 2022 that will carry us through the next major technical milestones that we have and into flight test. As it makes sense, we’ll have additional rounds in the future.

You can expect us to announce partnerships in different areas. We’re having various discussions and we’re getting a lot of good traction on that, but I don’t want to be premature about announcing anything. We’re excited about who we are and what our product is, I can tell you that.

Vertical: Is there anything else that you’d like to share with readers?

Valerie Manning: Aerospace does not have the most diverse pool of people in the world, and that’s something I would love to help change. That’s part of the reason why I enjoy being on the board of advisers for the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP). We live for this mission. 

The more that we can do to reach out and attract more people of diverse backgrounds to aviation, the better. It’s fun and it’s cool, so wherever you are in the world and whatever your educational background, take a look at it.

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