AFWERX Agility Prime Plans Training for First Government eVTOL

21 January 2022

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The AFWERX Agility Prime program took another step forward in December with the first government remotely piloted flight of an electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft.

Capt. Terrence McKenna, an Air Force Reserve pilot with the 370th Flight Test Squadron and the Test and Experimentation Lead for AFWERX Agility Prime, participated in remote pilot in control (rPIC) training on the Heaviside aircraft at the Kitty Hawk Corporation’s facility in Palo Alto, California, from 13-17 December 2021. While McKenna learned to remotely pilot the Heaviside, a crucial objective of the weeklong exercise was to evaluate and improve the training plan for future operations.

The training culminated in the first government remote piloted flight of an electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft when he successfully flew the Heaviside via the Buddy Box System. This first Airman flight demonstrated another key milestone in the collaboration.

Kitty Hawk, in partnership with Agility Prime, is evaluating a training syllabus for their unmanned eVTOL aircraft, the Heaviside. McKenna’s over 15 years of expertise piloting manned aircraft such as the C-5 and the T-38, as well as designing, developing, and testing manned and small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) as a civilian engineer, assisted Kitty Hawk’s team of engineers in refining both their product and their training procedures.

Josh Lane, a Flight Test Engineer (FTE) for Agility Prime, began working with Kitty Hawk in March 2021 and has collaborated with Kitty Hawk to develop test plans supporting their prototype testing and goals to commercialization.

Focusing on Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) revised Part 23, the safety standards and type certification requirements for small aircraft, and other potentially relevant parts of the Code of Federal Regulations, eVTOL companies like Kitty Hawk gained a greater understanding of the requirements they would have to comply with in order to gain type certification. However, Josh Lane, a Flight Test Engineer (FTE) for Agility Prime, explained that the road to certification for eVTOLs is an ongoing, collaborative process.

“These are new designs that don’t fit the FAA mold, and there’s not a 100 percent fit in some of these companies’ cases, so there’s a lot of engagement going on getting this path to a certified FAA aircraft,” Lane said. “They’re using baseline Parts and working with the FAA to determine what that certification basis is and what areas to be adjusted and addressed.”

McKenna concurred, saying, “Agility Prime is figuring out how we approach training for these types of aircraft. This is a whole new ballpark.”

Named for the English engineer, physicist, and mathematician Oliver Heaviside, the Heaviside is Kitty Hawk’s current flying model. The company has worked through several iterations of this vehicle and are in the planning stages for the next. The Heaviside was first deployed in 2019 after nearly a decade of development. This aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight is approximately 880 pounds, allowing for a passenger up to about 176 pounds. Heaviside can travel at speeds of roughly 180 miles per hour, but most significantly, it remains quiet: only about 35 decibels at 1,500 feet above ground level, which is slightly louder than a whisper and about 100 times quieter than a helicopter. Additionally, Heaviside has demonstrated 237 transitions between hover and forward flight, as well as a range of 100 miles on a single charge.

Heaviside takes advantage of several advanced technologies, such as Distributed Electric Propulsion (DEP), as this aircraft has eight fully electric propellers. Additionally, Lane explains that Kitty Hawk has refined its use of automated flight capabilities through its Ground Control Station (GCS); engineers can upload a flight plan, telling the vehicle to fly to certain locations, and the Heaviside can perform the entire flight profile without human intervention.

However, a training feature of the Heaviside is the Buddy Box setup, which is a secondary remote controller wired to a primary controller. This system is intended for the use of an instructor and a student performing the duties of an external pilot in manual flight mode; the trainee handles and operates the aircraft while the instructor provides supervision and support.

The Buddy Box system works much like a driver’s education car: the driving instructor is in the passenger seat and allows the student to manually operate the vehicle, but is ultimately in full control and able to brake if necessary. Likewise, for a Buddy Box setup, the instructor can override any direction that the remote pilot in command (rPIC) gives the aircraft from the primary controller.

The Heaviside and future models will not rely on an external pilot for flight operations, but utilizing this training method now affords the opportunity for more immediate and qualitative feedback on the aircraft, while also building out a training syllabus for the GCS operator.

Though the current training plan for the Heaviside includes a five-day familiarization course and a 12-day rPIC qualification course, McKenna participated in elements of only the familiarization course.

Kitty Hawk utilizes techniques such as Scenario-Based Training (SBT), which is derived from the FAA’s Airmen Certification Standards (ACS) and places the student in lifelike situations in order to complete each lesson objective. Additionally, Kitty Hawk employs Learner-Centered Grading, allowing students to assess their own performance in open conversation with their instructor.

Agility Prime chose McKenna to participate in this training because he fulfilled Kitty Hawk’s trainee prerequisites, which include possessing either a military pilot rating or an FAA Part 107 and 61 certificate. Through a building-block approach, students must also demonstrate proficiency in flying smaller remote control (RC) aircraft, such as fixed-wing aircraft and quadcopter, before graduating to the Heaviside.

To monitor and evaluate McKenna’s training process, the Air Education and Training Command (AETC) sent out Det 62 personnel to lend their experience with developing flight training plans. The Det 62 team worked closely with Kitty Hawk and the Agility Prime test team to draft an initial syllabus for McKenna for test and training. The team coordinated with Kitty Hawk’s analysts, as well as Agility Prime, to observe, gather data, review training processes, and conduct detailed debriefs along the way. Moreover, Brittney Tough, Kitty Hawk’s Senior Flight Training Manager, also brought extensive knowledge and experience to the table and served as an asset to government flight test teams.

“The main objective is to help collaboratively develop syllabi for these platforms with Kitty Hawk and our AETC detachment [Det 62],” McKenna said.

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