The nascent electric vertical takeoff and landing market was sent into a bit of a spin this week when the FAA suggested they may change the regulations by which eVTOL pilots are trained.

The initial report, in a subscription-only aviation newsletter, said the agency “is dramatically revising its approach to certifying” eVTOL aircraft, “injecting new uncertainty into the certification programs” of developers and calling it “a stunning development.”

The FAA quickly responded that eVTOLs will now be evaluated as “powered-lift” aircraft, a category originally established to accommodate civil tiltrotors, rather than performance-driven Part 23 small-aircraft certification rules, as previously planned.

In a statement provided to CAT, an FAA spokesperson stated, “Our process for certifying the aircraft themselves remains unchanged. All of the development work done by current applicants remains valid and the changes in our regulatory approach should not delay their projects.”

However, the statement also said, “The agency is pursuing a predictable framework that will better accommodate the need to train and certify the pilots who will operate these novel aircraft.”

“The FAA’s [Part 23 certification] regulations were designed for traditional airplanes and helicopters,” the agency explained. “However, these regulations did not anticipate the need to train pilots to operate powered-lift, which take off in helicopter mode, transition into airplane mode for flying, and then transition back to helicopter mode for landing.”

The industry was quick to react.

“This is bad policy for so many reasons,” stated Pete Bunce, President of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, (is) “detrimental to safety, and increases the workload on the FAA dramatically.”

Mike Hirschberg, Vertical Flight Society Group Executive Director, said, "Part 23 is the appropriate airworthiness standard for electric aircraft, whether the propellers thrust forward or vertically. This is what the industry has been expecting for more than a decade.”

A poster to an online forum offered a supportive perspective: “eVTOLs are powered-lift aircraft, so this is moving to certify them under the correct specification… the FAA's job isn't to make life easy for innovators, it's to ensure that the technology is safe for everyday use.”

There is speculation that the change of heart was triggered by an ongoing audit, launched in March (but not expected to be completed until next year), by the Inspector General of FAA parent, the US Department of Transportation. The IG said urban air mobility vehicles present the FAA with “new and complex safety challenges.” The FAA briefed Congress on the issue on 29 April. 

Further confusing the issue is the FAA reference to “long-term” plans to develop future regulations for eVTOLs in the powered-lift category regarding “operations and pilot training.” Meanwhile, in the short term, the FAA cited plans to create a “special class” process – under FAR 21.17(b) rules—that will reportedly incorporate Part 23’s airworthiness standards. 

VFS’s Hirschberg noted, "21.17(b) results in a special product that doesn't fit into operational constructs around the world. It's not internationally recognized, so using it as an airworthiness framework could significantly dampen operations of US-certificated aircraft in other countries. The FAA needs to work with the eVTOL community more closely if the agency wants to continue to lead in aviation in the coming decade."

The FAA countered: “This ‘special class’ process is designed to address the many novel features of unique aircraft such as these emerging powered-lift designs. This regulatory framework already exists, and this approach is consistent with international standards.”

On 10 May, the US General Accounting Office issued a report, “Transforming Aviation: Stakeholders Identified Issues to Address for ‘Advanced Air Mobility’.” In the pilot training section, the GAO report stated: “Because eVTOL aircraft require new flight skills, stakeholders and FAA officials told us that FAA would need to develop new training and certification standards for pilots. Since many eVTOL aircraft are able to fly horizontally like an airplane and take off and land vertically like a helicopter, some stakeholders emphasized that eVTOL pilots will need to be skilled in controlling the aircraft in both of these flight modes. These are distinct enough skills that FAA has traditionally required pilots to have separate certificate category ratings for airplanes and helicopters, and developed a separate ‘powered-lift’ category rating for aircraft that have combinations of these characteristics.”

It has been anticipated that, though eVTOL startups plan to use already licensed airline and helicopter pilots in the startup stages of operations, these pilots will require some form of “differences” training to understand the new aircraft types. Pilot training regulations have not yet been established by the FAA, or other regulator agencies around the world. However, there is already some pilot training planning taking place by companies such as CAE, FlightSafety International, Lufthansa and VertX Aero, and any significant re-direct could delay the pilot pipeline and therefore the launch of commercial operations.

Last week, at Halldale Group’s World Aviation Training Summit (WATS), CAE, Joby Aviation, and Embraer offered a comprehensive perspective on the challenges of eVTOL pilot training.