Commentary: Bringing the Vertical Flight Community Together
By Mike Hirschberg, AHS International Executive Director
From Vertiflite March/April 2018
Seventy-five years ago, the burgeoning helicopter industry came together to establish the American Helicopter Society, which was legally recognized on June 25, 1943. By that time, development teams at Bell and Piasecki had solved many of the basic problems of helicopter flight, joining Sikorsky to become the first successful American helicopter developers; Hiller made their first flight a year later.
Although the companies were fierce competitors from the beginning, they saw the value in uniting to resolve the myriad of fundamental barriers, including (to name a few): technical challenges, safety and reliability, ride quality, public acceptance, regulations, and military and civil applications (including on-demand mobility, then called “non-scheduled services”). Engineers, researchers, developers, suppliers, operators, regulators, the military, and the civil authorities came together for the success of this new type of aircraft.
Years before there were any other helicopter associations, AHS was established by the helicopter industry to solve common problems and lift the whole industry by engaging engineers and leaders in industry, academia and government.
Moreover, the first issue of the Journal also featured articles by operators that were the “start-ups” of their time — Los Angeles Airways, New York Airways, Helicopter Air Services, Rick Helicopters, Petroleum Helicopters Inc. (PHI) and Okanagan Helicopters (with an article entitled, “Okanagan, Pioneers of Mountain Flying”).A dozen years later, the first issue of the Journal of the AHS in January 1956 (Vol. 1, No. 1) was published under the supervision of its founding editor Alfred Gessow. It featured a veritable “who’s who” of the early helicopter community, with articles on developments by Sikorsky, Piasecki, Bell, Kaman, McDonnell, Kellett, Hiller and others, as well as the research at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (N.A.C.A.), the development of standards by the then-Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA), and operational experiences and future visions for all five of the US armed services.
AHS was the center of gravity where the nascent helicopter industry converged to solve the many barriers to successful and profitable operations. Since then, AHS has helped the helicopter to mature into a robust machine capable of savings lives threatened by accidents, natural disasters and human conflicts — sometimes in extreme conditions — bringing relief to millions when nothing else could and provide vital services for national defense, transportation and many other roles.
For three-quarters of a century, AHS has remained at the forefront of advancing vertical flight technology, providing a forum for technical discussions and leading efforts to break down barriers; an incubator for the next-generation technical workforce; a focal point for advancing public acceptance, regulations and standards, and military and civilian operations; and — last but not the least — a catalyst for change during changing times.
AHS has a proud legacy of accomplishments in the advancement of vertical flight, and truly shaped its rich and panoramic landscape. AHS has successfully nurtured transformative advancements in vertical flight such as the military and civil tiltrotor, the Joint Strike Fighter, Future Vertical Lift (FVL), micro air vehicles (MAVs), delivery drones and autonomous aircraft, including manned-unmanned teaming.
Today, much like in the early days of the helicopter, AHS is providing leadership on the development of electric- and hybrid-electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.
AHS International's Aeromechanics Design for Transformative Vertical Flight Technical Meeting and 5th Annual Transformative Vertical Flight Workshop were held Jan. 16-19 in San Francisco, California. The four-day event featured the latest advances and possibilities in urban air mobility, with more than 60 technical presentations and 55 invited speakers. Nearly 350 registrants attended the meeting, which was largely organized and executed by AHS members at the Ames Research Center, with significant attendance by entrepreneurs and developers from Silicon Valley and around the world.
This sell-out event was a watershed moment in vertical flight. One assessment of the event is that the established rotorcraft technical base is now realizing the breadth and depth of the eVTOL opportunities, while the “new-age” technology disruptors are realizing the breadth and depth of the vertical flight technical base. A post-event survey found that more than 20% of respondents changed their mind about eVTOL, answering: “Yes. Now I believe that electric VTOL aircraft will become operational within the next 5–10 years, and this event changed my mind.” All total, 58% now believe that eVTOL aircraft will become operational within this time period.
As of the end of January, more than 50 companies were listed on the AHS electric VTOL website, www.eVTOL.news. By a conservative estimate, more than $1B of capital investment has gone into electric VTOL over the past five years.
Like those early helicopter pioneers who came together in the 1940s for support in changing the world through vertical flight, the nascent eVTOL industry is now looking to AHS International — The Vertical Flight Technical Society — to support them in bringing about the electric VTOL revolution. AHS is working with other organizations — like the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) and ASTM International who are developing standards and preparing regulatory frameworks — to help ensure the technical soundness and ultimate success of this transformative vertical flight approach.
AHS will continue to bring together the wide expanse of the vertical flight technical community — from MAVs to helicopters and advanced rotorcraft to eVTOL — and continue our proud legacy of advancing vertical flight in the decades to come.
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