Vertical Flight Leader Believes Technology Will Transform Sector

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by Charles Alcock

Mar 3, 2023 – 2:40 PM

When you meet a true believer in the power of technology to transform an industry you care about, it’s hard not to get re-energized by their fervor and focus. Vertical Flight Society (VFS) executive director Mike Hirschberg is just such a believer, but his strong engineering background has helped him to soberly assess and support the transformation now underway in the sector as new eVTOL aircraft approach the market.

The VFS, which morphed from the American Helicopter Society in 2018, was one of the first professional bodies to see the potential for distributed electric propulsion and autonomous flight capability to support cleaner, quieter, and more cost-effective forms of vertical lift. “It was around 2013 that a number of our people started getting very excited about this and saw it as having a lot of potential, so we started a series of workshops around the theme of transformative vertical flight,” Hirschberg reflected.

Ten years later, what increasingly became known as urban or advanced air mobility stands at the forefront of much of the VFS’s mission, as reflected in well-supported events such as the Electric VTOL Symposium and the Autonomous VTOL Technical Meeting held in Mesa, Arizona, in January. In May, the group will hold its 79th Annual Forum & Technology Display in West Palm Beach, Florida.

The VFS differs from many industry associations in having a membership base of individuals, with around 6,400 such members in industry, academia, and government from around the globe. It also counts 180 corporate members, and that tally has grown significantly over the past six years.

Among their numbers are eVTOL aircraft pioneers Joby, Archer, and Lilium, all of which quickly have risen through the ranks from the small business category to become “gold” members. That means they are just one step in the society’s hierarchy below the long-established “big five” helicopter manufacturers, namely Bell, Sikorsky, Airbus, Leonardo, and Boeing.

Joby Aviation, which is developing a four-passenger eVTOL aircraft, is one of several advanced air mobility companies to have joined the Vertical Flight Society. (Image: Vertical Flight Society)

Hirschberg sees no tension in having the eVTOL crowd under one roof with their older rotorcraft cousins (some might say ancestors). “If you need to hover for a long time the helicopter is still the best solution with its large disc area and large-diameter rotors,” he told AIN. “But there are specific applications where an eVTOL is a better solution. We think helicopters will be around for a long time.”

The VFS has provided a supportive environment for the advanced air mobility revolutionaries as they have progressed their plans with a touch of bravado not normally associated with the more conservative elements in the aviation industry. “This is not a get-rich-quick scheme; we’ve been saying that for a long time,” Hirschberg said. “It takes a decade, $1 billion, and a thousand engineers [to get a new eVTOL aircraft certified] before you start getting any revenues.”

In his view, some of the eVTOL leaders will succeed over the next few years, despite the limitations of some aspects of the supporting technology. “Batteries still suck compared to fossil fuels, with only about 5 percent of the energy density, so it will be a relatively narrow niche,” he commented. “On the other hand, helicopters cost a lot of money because they tend to be in the hangar [not earning money] most of the day.”

The VFS has also advanced a case for hydrogen propulsion that it hopes could deliver on both the net zero carbon objectives of the industry and cost-effective levels of performance for aircraft. In May 2020, it formed the Hydrogen-Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (H2eVTOL) Council, which recently spun off into a new independent nonprofit organization known as the Hysky Society, led by advanced air mobility entrepreneur Danielle McLean.

Along with advocating for hydrogen as a clean and sustainable energy source for the aviation industry, the Hysky society will do public outreach work to educate the general population about the benefits of hydrogen-powered eVTOL aircraft and how they can shape the future of transportation, according to VFS.

Monthly meetings previously held by the H2eVTOL Council will continue on the third Monday of every month, but the meetings will henceforth be referred to as “Hysky Monthly.” The Hysky society is now accepting new members. Those interested in joining can sign up via Hysky’s website. The organization also accepts donations. 

“I’ve always said that there are a thousand reasons why eVTOLs won’t work and the same is true of hydrogen,” Hirschberg commented. “What we’re trying to do is bring people together to make it work.”

In the bigger picture, the VFS has just released a new strategy document to define its future objectives. One of the biggest items on the to-do list is helping the vertical flight industry to recruit 10,000 or more engineers.

The society firmly believes in taking a diverse approach to recruiting newcomers to an industry that many have considered somewhat traditional and one-dimensional in terms of its talent food chain. “If we keep doing the same thing over and over we’ll just get the same people, so we can’t afford to exclude people of diversity,” said Hirschberg. “We’re trying to reach out to schools and universities that haven’t generally been approached [to contact students].”

As he prepares to step down as VFS executive director in mid-2023 to assume a new role with the society, Hirschberg firmly believes that the vertical flight sector will succeed in re-inventing itself. Does that mean he believes the front-runners in the eVTOL aircraft race to market will achieve their ambitious timelines to start commercial air taxi services barely two years from now?

“We know we can get people to fly in eVTOL aircraft, and it’s a matter of when not if,” he concluded. “This is as revolutionary as going over to the smartphone. We think we’ll look back on the first wave of eVTOLs and say how limited they were, but 2025 is not the finish line, it’s just the beginning in giving birth to this revolution.”

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