From the No-Surprise File: FAA Switches Up On Electric Aircraft Certification


Sooner or later, the FAA—and regulators worldwide—will reach an inflection point with electric aircraft and it may be that sooner has arrived. Or at least has been hinted at. Last week, Air Currents reported that the agency is switching gears, at least with regard to the burgeoning eVTOL category, which appears to mean these aircraft will be certified as a special category, not a traditional aircraft that happens to be electric powered. That category is likely to be powered tilt rotor.

In my view, this was inevitable. As I reported in this video I prepared on the Joby project, the company’s claim that it would certify the S4 as an airplane was too much of a stretch to believe. It’s a tilt rotor, not an airplane, and as such it has complex flight dynamics in normal flight, much less failure modes that neither the FAA nor any of the companies have much experience with in the certification realm. Going into this large sea change, the FAA had essentially zero experience in electric aircraft and even now it is pedaling furiously to gain enough expertise to even construct the framework for electric certification.     

Manufacturers have soothed us with claims that a certification path exits, but I’m skeptical that this is true. The FAA announcement all but confirms that. Joby, for one, is insisting that its aircraft will be certified next year and will enter service in 2024, with volume reaching 34,000 flights a day by 2026. Joby will start with production rates of 200 to 400 aircraft a year, eventually rising into the thousands. The market aim is, of course, urban air mobility—on demand air taxi. There’s a detectable hubris among these manufacturers because not a one has been through a big certification project and, being visionaries, they’re sure they’ve got this wired because they’re inventing the future. (To be fair, they are.)

It’s understandable that the FAA would get nervous about this ambitious schedule and Joby isn’t the only company pushing the cutting edge. Archer is another promising entrant, along with Lilium, Volocopter and eHang to name just three others. In general aviation, there’s kind of dual kneejerk reaction to all this development. One is a hidebound belief that these things are just flying air castles designed to drain investors of their money. While there’s some of that, these vehicles are, nonetheless, real things and like it or not, they’re coming. We’re on the edge of a sea change. The second reaction is the standard howl about the FAA stymieing progress by bureaucratic foot dragging and unrealistic test requirements. There’s truth to that, too.

But try this thought experiment. The light sport industry, such as it is, came into being by a deliberate shift away from stringent FAA oversight to industry consensus standards overseen largely by the aircraft builders themselves. This was supposed to yield less expensive airframes that would be more accessible to more people. To a degree, it did just that. Next time you’re bitching about a $200,000 light sport airplane, just remember that it costs less than half the price of a new 172 and many are a lot less than that.  

If you applied consensus standards to a transport-type aircraft, what would you get? We know the answer. You get the 737 MAX. Yeah, it’s an exaggeration—although not much of one—to say the 737 was built to consensus standards. The FAA was so incompetent in its oversight of the MAX certification that Boeing applied its own standards, resulting in a catastrophe for the company, the airline industry and aircraft manufacturing in general. With so little expertise in electric airplanes, it’s possible if not likely that Joby, Lilium, Archer and others will attempt to drive certification to meet what they consider appropriate standards. They may be right. Or not. Boeing obviously was not. And the stench of this still wafts through the halls at 800 Independence Ave. We don’t know for sure, but the searing disaster of the MAX probably shapes FAA decision making on electrics, if not everything else.

How this might shape oversight of the coming electric trainers is an unknown. Bye Aerospace claims it has a cert path all mapped out and Pipistrel, now owned by Textron, is working toward a certification program, too. In the months since I did this video on the Pipistrel Velis, FIT is continuing its data acquisition work for the FAA. At this juncture, it doesn’t look like the agency is ready to commit to paper a certification framework for those airplanes. It will get there. Eventually.

So the thing to remember here is this: It’s what you’ve always known. When a manufacturer says an electric aircraft will be certified by some date, just blot that out. Think about applying an industrial bag of salt and you’ll be about right.

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  1. If the eVTOL industry folks want to get certified they better start pushing their favorite congressmen harder. Over the last three decades most all new regulation has come out of congress not the FAA. The FAA is an enforcement agency now. FAA loves their trophies and political correct grammar but has very little to do with promoting or advancing Aviation. The Federal Aviation Administration is Aviation in name only, they want guns and badges.

  2. “which appears to mean these aircraft will be certified as a special category not a traditional aircraft that happens to be electric powered. That category is likely to be powered tilt rotor.”

    If certified under Part 23, someone within the FAA would eventually have to be the final signature approving this new technology. Part 23, with all of its foibles, is a well known process. As flawed as it might be, including its glacial approval speed, it is still familiar to the FAA. Likewise to both fixed wing and helicopters manufacturers. Joby wanted and needs Part 23 certification to succeed.

    After the MAX debacle, few if any in the FAA wants to be the final authority for almost anything that flies, let alone, the responsible signature for approving literally thousands of future vTOL’s flitting about the urban landscape.

    These electric vTOL’s are going to be a litigation nightmare for the FAA, the manufacturer, and the cities who approve their use. Considering the lagging battery technology not even close to the ESC’s and motor performance, it will take an inordinate amount of onboard redundancy to compensate for poor endurance including recharging issues for the short term. So far, not much on the horizon for anything but very small, incremental advances at best for battery performance. Hence, enter a new classification. That should slow any chance of fast certification because the future FAA certification standards for a new classification will be a perpetual moving target. Secondly, the FAA must oversee and approve of the infrastructure needed within this urban frontier. Another perpetual moving target of certification. Lastly, who wants to be the responsible party signing off on the electrical guidance, separation, and tracking systems for the multitude of Joby’s, something different from Lilium, something different yet from all of the other manufacturers…with the integration nightmare of patented technology that is sure to follow. Or worse, the FAA mandating a one size fits all approach that destroys all of the innovation these manufacturers are using as the poster boy for fundraising from various current and future investors.

    The FAA does not handle uncharted waters very well. No bureaucracy handles new innovation well in any business sector it is responsible for. Bureaucracy by its nature can only regulate what it knows. What it doesn’t know becomes the bureaucracy’s worst night mare.

    So, keep certification’s final approval subject to constant change. That maintains the status quo, allowing politicians to be continually lobbied by the manufacturers for a final approval that will never come, keeping investment money continuously flowing from ultimately foreign governments who use this lobbying as a door opener for political influence, rather than a potential mass transportation solution. In the meantime, the debate over something that will never be allowed to fully mature, as an at best marginal potential useful solution for urban congestion, will be a more and more polarizing as if the aviation community which includes the FAA bureaucracy needs any more polarization.

    Piston engines fired by magnetos pushing and pulling Beechcraft, Piper, Cirrus, Cessna, Diamond, Aviat, CubCrafters, and any other aircraft manufacturers I have neglected to mention are in no immediate danger of extinction. The kerosene burners are not threatened by electric innovation including vTOLs. The bureaucracy protects against extinction because it needs something to regulate and maintain. It exists to regulate something it knows. That extinction prevention is fueled by money. Money that promises innovation enough for hope from the uninformed investor to invest in an uncertified venue is also the same power that protects the bureaucracy from permanently making extinct the industry it currently regulates. This money tension is the basis for the status quo. And to the jury, I present exhibit number one…a drop in unleaded avgas solution.

  3. I call eVTOL Aviation 2.0. However I think all the pure electric ones are doomed to fail. Hybrid with a piston engine or turbine, alternator and a small high power, not high energy battery pack should work fine.
    Certification is a whole another issue. Jim H. has just described the Australia problem in aviation bureaucracy. Lots of promising projects have foundered here by the regulator delaying until the money runs out. Best thought of as a gang of armed brigands, looting the industry.
    On the 737 MAX: yeah they might have done that better but why do I have the feeling that the aircraft would have crashed the next time there was a trim runaway for any cause, MAX, NG or Classic? Just maybe, the root cause was poor pilot training not the less than perfect design of the MCAS system?

    • The 737 MAX was still a total disaster for Boeing and the FAA, regardless of the fact that pilot training should have been able to prevent the crash. Boeing did essentially hide the MCAS system from the documentation, under the guise that it was just a component of the trim system (technically true, but it also presented as a special kind of runaway trim). In any case, it does highlight how “the private sector is always better than government agencies” is not always true.

      • And highlights shortcoming of gummint agencies – FAA were short of staff, newbies needed coaching, …

        British Columbia demonstrated incompetence in the unusually high temperatures of June 2021, death rate far higher than WA and OR who were proactive early. Ambulance service failed to prepare, even rejected offers of staff to work extra hours on their own time – responsible executives have been re-assigned (not fired).

        But yes, Boeing Botched – failed to follow its own procedures to update safety analyses when changes made, experienced managers asleep so none questioned the morphing of MCAS from the mild limited function on KC-46A into a tyrant. (KC-46A has it because CofG can get out of line with fuel offload and in-plane transfers.)

  4. “…these aircraft will be certified as a special category, not a traditional aircraft that happens to be electric powered. That category is likely to be powered tilt rotor.

    Is “powered tilt-rotor” in its own category, or is it part of the “rotorcraft” category (i.e. rotorcraft-tilt rotor)?

    • I should have been more specific. It’s called powered lift category for the AW609, which is a tilt rotor. New category. Whether electric falls under that category or powered lift remains to be seen.

    • The Pipistrel Velis is an airplane. Many other electric aircraft in development are “powered lift.” Some are helicopters that just happen to have multiple rotors. Basically, if it has VTOL and flies with an airplane wing it’s powered lift. The powerplant doesn’t matter.

  5. Redundancy of rotors, and their large offset from fuselage, is a notable factor.

    The AW609 is being developed for civilian use.

    BTW, tilt rotor experimentation goes back a looong way, a recent one the NASA device with four ducted fans. lists a few of many.
    The e-things use electricity to distribute power to rotors rather than long shafts as experimental ducted rotor designs did, the V-22, V-280, and AW609 have engines attached to their proptors.

  6. Meanwhile I am amused by weight bloat of cars for electrification, which are heavy to start with of course, Bentley division of VW needs EU to increase weight limit on standard driver license.

    (Weight of course increases with range, perhaps a factor in sales in Middle East which like some areas of North America and Australia have few rescue locations.

    Amusing point in the book Adventure Capitalist about journey by car with light trailer around the earth – he chose Mercedes because they had more service locations, because rich and poohbah types liked to buy them.)

    Bjorn covers feasibility or not of electric airliners in a series of articles in Leeham News blog.

  7. And need to make sure of security: (and beyond)

    Will TC make extra sure that Harbour Air chargers are secure, given the number of BC gummint people flying on their floatplanes?

    I don’t know how Boeing and FAA handled concerns about data busses on 787, which makes substantial use of a very constrained version of Ethernet. (I don’t recall if that bus system was the Collins one introduced in a lesser way on the A380.)

  8. Paul when you say things like, “these vehicles are, nonetheless, real things and like it or not, they’re coming. We’re on the edge of a sea change.”, it makes me think that your practiced skepticism is starting to soften. I happen to agree with you though.

  9. The Joby time line is simply a way to placate investors with non-stop BS about certification timing as if there can be a timeline for a non-existent process, along with ridiculous production numbers and expected utilization. Comparing the Evtol industry to the light sport regulatory development is not appropriate. LSAs are still airplanes that have to meet all the usual airspace regulations, restrictions, including the use of airports, designated routes, etc. None of that is apparently applicable to vtols that supposedly land and take off from essentially anywhere, fly in any direction, at any altitude, route of flight, piloting requirements, the list goes on and on. Absolutely no comparison with the development and regulation of LSAs.

  10. “Next time you’re bitching about a $200,000 light sport airplane, just remember that it costs less than half the price of a new 172…”

    In 1975 a new 172 cost about 1.5x the median income in the US. In 2021 a new 172 cost about 7x the median income. That $200k LSA is 4x the median income.

    All numbers from a very quick search, but even if only somewhat near the ballpark, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to bitch up a storm.

    • And in 1965, CEOs made about 20x a typical worker, 58x in 1989, and around 221x in 2018. So clearly the money is there, but worker pay hasn’t risen at the same rate. That sort of skews the cost of an airplane vs median income.

      That being said, a $400k+ 172 can carry more payload than the $200k LSA, so it’s difficult to directly compare the two. What would be interesting to see is if the weight limit for LSAs is raised; would that translate into aircraft with similar capabilities of a 172 but with lower costs.

      • Hi Gary, my point was that even a far less capable aircraft in 2022 is far more expensive, relative to median income, than the 172 in 1975.
        Been lurking here a long time—Paul often strikes me as almost laughing at people who can’t afford a half-million dollar airplane (or even the $200k aviation equivalent of a Volkswagen Bug). I submit the above quote as evidence. If that’s not his intent, maybe he should employ a little more tact in his phrasing.