By 2026, leading eVTOL developer Joby Aviation expects that its fleet of commercial air taxis will be performing over 12 million flights per year, or more than 35,000 flights per day. Other companies like Archer and Lilium have made similar projections. The numbers are staggering, and will create a huge demand for eVTOL pilots — close to 60,000 by 2028, according to an estimate by McKinsey and Company.
Although most eVTOL developers expect their aircraft to eventually become fully autonomous, human pilots will play a pivotal role in getting the next revolution in aviation off the ground. Technology, the human capacity to integrate it, and how we regulate pilot training will all be of critical importance in ensuring that the eVTOL industry is commercially successful while meeting the same safety standards as today’s airlines.
One company that is poised to lead these efforts is CAE, a global aviation simulation provider with over 10,000 employees supporting 160 sites in 35 countries. In a recent white paper on pilot training for advanced air mobility (AAM), CAE notes that the requirement for eVTOL pilots will be in addition to the more than 264,000 new pilots that will be needed to meet the demands of the airline industry and business aviation in the next decade.
Chris Courtney is a retired U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army helicopter pilot who joined CAE recently to head its new AAM division. After retiring from the military, Courtney jumped headfirst into the future of aviation, working first in a drone startup before joining Uber Elevate as head of flight operations and then Joby as commercial flight operations lead. Now, he’s helping CAE leverage its more than 70 years of experience in training pilots to meet the future demands of the AAM space.
As Courtney explained, CAE expects advancements in simulation technology — along with the high levels of automation in next-generation aircraft — to drastically change the future requirements of pilot training. For the future AAM market, CAE is looking to integrate data analytics with “mixed reality” simulators that combine virtual and augmented reality, providing a very realistic training device with minimal hardware.
It’s an approach that the new generation of pilots should be well suited for. Courtney’s 18-year-old son earned his private pilot certificate and is on his way to Embry Riddle this fall to pursue a degree in aerospace engineering. “I could easily see him flying one of these aircraft for commercial operations with three or four hundred hours under his belt, because I watched him fly safely here in the busy airspace around San Francisco. So, I know the next generation is very tech savvy, and designing training for the modern learner is something we talk about often inside the company,” Courtney said.
The eVTOL aircraft being developed today include tiltrotors and other complex configurations. However, they should be much easier to fly than conventional tiltrotor aircraft like the Bell-Boeing V-22, thanks to the advanced autonomy being incorporated in their fly-by-wire flight controls. “Ultimately, the way that these aircraft are designed, there’s just a lot of safety protocols put in place. There’s extensive automation that provides envelope protection in the aircraft, helping to keep the pilot from making mistakes while dramatically enhancing safety,” Courtney said.
That observation was echoed by Jesse Crispino, a former U.S. Army experimental test pilot and chief of systems integration for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Now he’s serving as the chief operations officer for eVTOL developer Jaunt Air Mobility, an early customer of CAE’s AAM solutions.
“These aircraft are going to be much simpler than a traditional helicopter,” Crispino said, explaining that the fly-by-wire technology will make the controls much easier and more intuitive, significantly reducing the pilot workload. Because of the leap in technology, he said, “you no longer need hundreds of hours to qualify someone to fly these vertical take-off and landing things.”
However, even if the onboard technology demands less from pilots in terms of traditional stick-and-rudder skills, the mission requirements of eVTOL air taxis taking off from crowded downtown rooftops and flying into Class B airspace will necessitate a strong training program. As CAE observes in its white paper, take-offs and landings are critical phases of flight. While commercial and business jet pilots might experience two to four of these critical phases per day, eVTOL pilots could experience two to four per hour — because if eVTOL air taxis aren’t delivering passengers, they’re not making money, and their flights are short.
These passengers will be flown in obstacle-rich environments in and around cities, and pilots will be landing on some challenging elevated landing pads/vertiports. Add in the potential for conflict with drone operations, microclimate weather, and unforeseen emergencies, and the future challenges for eVTOL pilots will be immense.
This is one reason why Jaunt chose to work with CAE. “Our business model is never to do everything internally; we’re not going to be a vertical organization,” Crispino said. “I don’t want an army of 800 people or 900 people working for us. I want to push those tasks that are best done by experts to the experts.”
In May, Jaunt announced it was partnering with CAE on a systems integration lab, or “iron bird,” which will help Jaunt certify its eVTOL aircraft while paving the way for training simulators down the road. Courtney suggested that eVTOL developers should begin laying the groundwork for their training programs about three years before the first aircraft is delivered. Experienced aircraft manufacturers typically need this long to spool up their training systems, and a prototype simulator certification process can take from 16 to 24 months.
Wait too long and, as Crispino put it, “you have this next monster that pops up that you paid little attention to, and it’s training. . . . It gets kicked down the line and all of a sudden everyone’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have a huge training program and it’s in shambles.’ I wanted to avoid this, so we reached out to CAE.”
Crispino recently had an opportunity to fly CAE’s T-6 mixed reality simulator, which he said was “unbelievable.”
“It was the greatest feeling — you were totally immersed in it,” he said. “You had the flight controls in your hand. You had all the cockpit in front of you, that could just click with your fingers, and move with your fingers. And it was great.”
“We’re going to need that type of trainer that can be pushed out to the field, because [the existing] model of having all the pilots going back to the CAE facility [to] get their 20 to 40 required hours, it’s just not going to work,” he continued. “These things would be pushed out all around the world. They’re going to be in small locations; they’re going to be in big locations.”
Courtney said that modern technologies will likely cause authorities to rethink how they certify pilots. “All the automation that’s built into the aircraft will help paint the picture to authorities that we can start to take pilots with less experience into the aircraft,” he said.
CAE is exploring ways to establish competency-based training and assessment (CBTA) programs, centering on demonstrating pilot proficiency, rather than achieving specific training program inputs such as hours of study or hours of practice. According to CAE’s white paper, such an approach “is a potential solution to harmonizing eVTOL pilot training across a wide range of aircraft designs and with an easier path to adoption by multiple regulators.”
Such an approach could eventually be reflected on the operations side as well. Currently, 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 135 — which is expected to apply to most commercial eVTOL operations in the United States — is very “input” based, with pilots requiring a minimum of 1,200 hours of flight time for instrument flight rules (IFR) operations, and 500 hours for visual flight rules (VFR) operations, depending on the operation.
In the meantime, it is to be expected that the first eVTOL operators flying passengers for hire will be under the microscope, making it critical that their pilot training programs go above and beyond the minimum requirements.
“Mitigating risk through timely and effective training designed and implemented by subject matter experts like CAE is incredibly important because if one mishap occurs out of the gate in this industry, it can set it back years,” Courtney said. “We are all in this together and it is imperative we collaborate and look at this in a preventative versus reactive lens so we can deliver on the advantages that eVTOL aircraft have to offer the world.”