Dr. James Wang.

Leadership Profile: Dr. James Wang

Vertiflite, March/April 2020

With a distinguished career in rotorcraft engineering and marketing, James Wang now teaches aircraft design and performance at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and consults for companies in the nascent electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) industry. He explained, “Since I helped pioneer eVTOL ten years ago, I want to share my passion and experience for electric flight and aeronautics to help companies that also believe in hybrid or electric VTOL.” Wang’s Vtolwerke LLC consultancy specializes in engineering, technology and business strategy for eVTOL start-ups. “I love all aircraft that can take off and land vertically because they are technically more challenging. Electric propulsion opens the door to very creative alternative vehicle configurations that could be hard to realize with traditional powerplants. Electric can reduce manufacturing and operating costs and make VTOL flight more affordable.”

As vice president of research and development at AgustaWestland (now Leonardo Helicopters), Wang led his “Skunkworks” in 2011 to design, build and fly the Project Zero eVTOL demonstrator in just six months. The 12-m demonstrator shocked observers at the 2013 Paris Air Show. Scale models validated the Project Zero design in hover and cruising flight, but Wang acknowledged, “We did not do any forward flight with the full-scale demonstrator. Everything was limited to hover because endurance was limited to less than 10 minutes. That’s not enough to allow you to take off, transition, get to 300 kt and come back. The plan was to wait for higher-specific-energy batteries and our hybrid diesel-electric solution that would allow us a one-hour flight and then transition.”

Wang observed, “Today I would say the right choice for a hybrid would be a turbine instead of diesel because of maturity and the power-to-weight ratio of the whole turbine-fossil fuel combination. Fossil fuel still has 40 times more specific energy than batteries. You just cannot beat that.” Project Zero nevertheless provided a glimpse into electric VTOL. Wang summarized, “The project was stopped because it was simply too early for its time, but I am glad it triggered a revolution in eVTOL and Urban Air Mobility (UAM).”

Learning to Fly

As the son of a successful import-export entrepreneur, James Wang grew up on Long Island, New York and in Los Angeles, California. “No one in my family is an engineer,” he noted. “I have a great dad who always encouraged me and supported my dreams. When I was eight, my dad was going on a business trip, and he asked me what would I like him to bring back. I said I wanted an airplane that could fly and I could control from the ground. My dad brought back a SIG model catalog and a balsa wood RC [radio control] airplane kit along with a few Cox engines, but without any radio. I read that SIG catalog like a bible and memorized every page. I started designing and building my own RC model airplanes before I was eleven; without having flown one.”

The junior high school hobbyist met Lockheed L-1011 TriStar architect John Gorham in 1976 at the Sepulveda Basin flying field in Los Angeles. Wang said, “John was a pioneer in RC helicopters, and he magnanimously took me on as his protégé. From then on, I knew I wanted to design rotorcraft because of their unique flying capabilities, and because they seemed more challenging than airplanes. Around the same time, the son of my neighbor was studying at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I saw all the cool machine shop tools and Heathkit projects he built in his basement, and I became inspired to go to MIT.”

The prestigious university provided new directions and mentors. “I did my undergraduate degree in aeronautics at MIT,” noted Wang. “MIT is also well known for its electrical engineering and computer science programs. All my classmates and dorm-mates were in EE. I decided to get a second bachelor’s degree in EE.” Wang recollected, “At MIT, I actively searched for rotorcraft-related research. I was fortunate to have Prof. Wesley Harris as my advisor on multiple helicopter acoustic research projects and Prof. Rene Miller as my EE thesis advisor when I designed a position-feedback stability augmentation system I flight tested on a model helicopter. Prof. Norman Ham was my mentor to calculate theoretically and then build an unmanned electric helicopter. Back in the 80’s I was already experimenting with electric helicopters before lithium batteries, efficient brushless motors and digital motor controllers were available.”

Into Industry

Bell Helicopter gave James Wang an interview and a helicopter ride when he graduated from MIT. “Right after the flight, Dr. Jin Yen, the Director of Flight Science, offered me a job as a preliminary designer on the spot. I asked him, ‘Should I come to work immediately or go get my PhD in rotorcraft?’ Dr. Yen said, “Go get your PhD, and we will always have a job for you when you want to join Bell.”

Doctoral studies provided more rotorcraft mentors. According to Wang, “I owe a lot to my PhD advisor, Prof. Inderjit Chopra at the University of Maryland Rotorcraft Center. He is a foremost expert on rotorcraft aeromechanics and aeroelasticity. After six years at Maryland, Dr. Chopra said, ‘James, it is time for you to graduate.’ He personally arranged an interview for me at Sikorsky.” In 1991, the Boeing-Sikorsky team had just won the LHX [Comanche] competition with a scout-attack helicopter featuring a bearingless main rotor (BMR). “My PhD specialized in BMR design and aeromechanics,” noted Wang, “and I was responsible for the NASA-sponsored wind tunnel tests of a BMR in the UMd tunnel. When I joined Sikorsky’s Dynamics Group, I cut my teeth as the lead for a comprehensive fullsize S-76-Comanche BMR test in the NASA Ames 40-by-80 ft wind tunnel. Our team won an award from NASA.”

Wang added, “Being fresh out of university and immediately working on a critical, real-world program was one of the most rewarding experiences that any young engineer could dream of. I deeply appreciated Wen Liu Miao, the chief of the Sikorsky Dynamics Group, and Bob Blackwell, the Comanche dynamics manager, for their trust in me and years of friendship.” Over the next 17 years at Sikorsky, James worked on the Comanche, Black Hawk, Naval Hawk, S-92, S-76, CH-53, and VH-3D helicopter programs, and on variable diameter tilt rotor studies. “I worked on comprehensive code development, flight tests, wind tunnel tests, new product designs, certifications and sales. I was in heaven, and there was never a boring day. I met customers from around the world to understand their missions and technical requirements, and I led my team to win multibillion-dollar international sales.”

James Wang and the AgustaWestland Project Zero team, Italy.
James Wang and the AgustaWestland Project Zero team, Italy.

James Wang’s banker-wife urged him to earn a Masters degree from the MIT Sloan Business School. “She said my knowledge was laser-focused on technology — one micron wide and three miles deep.” When an international assignment took the couple to Europe, AgustaWestland offered Wang leadership of a new R&D department reporting directly to CEO Giuseppe Orsi. “Giuseppe is an inspiring leader, a great businessman and a visionary,” said Wang. “In Europe, I put together a new R&D department and recruited talented engineers from around the world. Giuseppe gave me a multi-million-Euro budget as seed money.” Wang offered, “Europeans focus more on civilcommercial products, they have to fund a lot of their own R&D. Leonardo is an excellent company and puts 10% of its revenue back in R&D.” Wang’s 15-year technology strategy for AgustaWestland included Project Zero. “I guess my crystal ball was correct, because today eVTOL is one of the hottest topics.”

Electric Lift

“The versatility and flexibility of electric propulsion allows design creativity,” said James Wang. “In a way, electric makes it easier for people to become self-taught aircraft designers. That is why we have over 200 start-ups and entrepreneurs, and even car companies, all doing eVTOL aircraft. One danger I am worried about is that many of them do not have experience in rotorcraft aeroelasticity and aeromechanics, and these rotating bugs will come back and bite. If one team experiences a fatal accident, then that could hurt the entire eVTOL and UAM momentum.”

Wang left Leonardo and established Vtolwerke LLC in 2018 to share his rotorcraft expertise. “I enjoy working with inspired clients because they bring forth different, interesting needs. Some seek guidance on business case, market forecast, financial strategy, cost estimation, or how to manage an aerospace development program because they do not have experience in developing a new aircraft. Some need help on roadmapping because they have never done an eVTOL. Some require guidance on designing, or recommending concepts, or just shadowing them during the design phases.”

Dr. Wang continued, “There are not enough experienced helicopter designers to fill the need of over 200 companies. Certification of a new rotorcraft is a long and rigorous process. On average, it takes three years for a large, experienced OEM [Original Equipment Manufacturer] to certify a new rotorcraft. I am amazed that many eVTOL companies believe they can walk into the FAA office and receive a certification in a year. How can an eVTOL aircraft, which most surely is going to use fly-by-wire controls and an innovative electric propulsion system never certified in the civil market, be approved quickly? My advice is to plan a realistic schedule for a new eVTOL development program. Recruit many smart, can-do talents, but also find the best and most experienced helicopter designers in the world, and start early to learn how FAA and EASA certification processes work.”

In 2019, the Dean of Engineering at Nanyang Technological University invited Dr. Wang to join NTU as a full professor and lead eVTOL and UAM research. The school hosts the world’s first eVTOL Research Center. “In addition to teaching theory and practical design, I also share with students how aerospace business is run, how to do a business case, manufacturing planning, certification processes, marketing, selling, and customer support.” Wang also advises NTU doctoral students. “They’re all VTOL enthusiasts. That’s the research topic I’m interested in.”

In 2013, Wired Magazine declared James Wang “The Steve Jobs of Rotorcraft.” Wang is a Technical Fellow of AHS/VFS and the Royal Aeronautical Society, and his Project Zero team was honored with the prestigious Grover Bell Award for outstanding research and experimental contribution in vertical flight. “I first joined AHS when I was an undergraduate at MIT. I was in awe when I attended my first annual Forum in DC in 1986. Through AHS, I have met many gurus and pillars of the rotorcraft industry: Bob Ormiston, Dave Peters, Wayne Johnson. They were all very humble and openly shared their knowledge and advice, including career advice. AHS brings together helicopter people from all over the world, and it really doesn’t matter whether a member is from industry, government, academia, or operations. That is why I have done a lot of volunteering in the last 30 years. I taught the 2019 VFS eVTOL Short Course and look forward to doing it again at the 2020 VFS Forum in Montreal.”

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