By Gerrard Cowan

Gerrard Cowan is a freelance journalist who specializes in finance and defense. Follow him on Twitter @gerrardcowan

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USAF targets first crewed operations on board an eVTOL aircraft this year

The U.S. Air Force (USAF) AFWERX Agility Prime program is aiming to hit a significant milestone in the coming months — the first crewed operations by Air Force operators on board an eVTOL aircraft.

Kitty Hawk Heaviside
In December, Air Force Reserve pilot Captain Terrence McKenna participated in remote pilot in control (rPIC) training on Kitty Hawk’s Heaviside eVTOL aircraft. Kitty Hawk Image

The USAF awarded its first airworthiness approval for human flight to Beta Technologies and its Alia aircraft last May. A crewed flight would build upon a remotely piloted flight in December, when Air Force Reserve pilot Captain Terrence McKenna participated in remote pilot in control (rPIC) training on Kitty Hawk’s Heaviside eVTOL aircraft.

A crewed operation is one of Agility Prime’s major objectives for 2022, said Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Meagher, AFWERX Prime division chief, with the program hoping to achieve this goal sometime in the first half of the calendar year, he told eVTOL.com.

Meagher also highlighted the U.S. Army’s new contract with Beta Technologies, which will see engineers from the company and the Army evaluate how the Alia can be used in army missions. This contract was facilitated through Agility Prime.

Agility Prime was launched in April 2020 with the aim of working with the industrial base to support and accelerate development of the commercial eVTOL industry. As it prepares to mark its second anniversary, the program’s second major focus is continued military experimentation with commercial eVTOL technologies, Meagher said, in order to “fine tune the initial use cases for the vehicles.”

The main interest is to better leverage dual-use technologies, he said, stimulating and then adapting the large commercial investments being made in the sector. Primarily, the USAF sees significant benefits from eVTOLs in advanced logistics concepts, notably in cargo and personnel transport, which matches the major goals of many companies in the industry.

He noted that last year, AFWERX spent six months evaluating almost 70 different government use cases for the vehicles, which grounded the primary focus on personnel and cargo transport.

“Over recent decades, the amount of research and development in commercially focused, emerging technologies has significantly increased, versus the amount that’s just defense focused,” he said, adding that the USAF is also interested in the potential for advanced manufacturing and materials.

Pointing to the program’s other major achievements, Meagher said Agility Prime has so far awarded military airworthiness approval to four different vendors: Kitty Hawk, Lift Aircraft, Beta Technologies, and Joby. This has allowed it to conduct advanced flight testing with these companies’ platforms under USAF direction. The airworthiness approval was the first for these types of electric engines, Meagher noted, “and informs future civilian airworthiness through the program’s close partnership with the FAA [U.S. Federal Aviation Administration].”

Meagher highlighted the development of autonomy as a key technological interest for the USAF, noting that this is also a key goal for commercial companies in the area. “If we can leverage the commercial automation economy, and figure out how to move those capabilities into [military use], that’s very valuable,” he said.

He also pointed to Air Education and Training Command (AETC) Department 62, which was set up in late 2021 to establish training and certification standards for emerging eVTOLs. This is important, Meagher stressed, because it is working closely with the FAA, helping establish how to certify these operations — not just for the USAF but for civil operations in the future.

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3 Comments

  1. The needs of the United States Armed Forces, specifically, the USAF, do not need to mirror those of civillian mobility platforms. The military must be careful however to match new technology to actual needs and not invent new ways to do old things. By that I mean using creative air technologies to perform current mission parameters negates the benefits provided by the new mobility concept.

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