Mike Hirschberg, Executive Director of the Vertical Flight Society since 2011. Image: VFS

Interview: Mike Hirschberg of the Vertical Flight Society


I attended a key rendezvous of the blossoming air taxi industry in Phoenix and had the opportunity to interview Mike Hirschberg, executive director of event organizer the Vertical Flight Society.

Q: The C-Drone Review is at the 8th Biennial Autonomous VTOL Technical Meeting and 6th Annual Electric VTOL Symposium in Phoenix, Arizona. I’m sitting here with Mike Hirschberg, the executive director of the Vertical Flight Society. Mike, thanks for meeting with us.

Mike Hirschberg: My pleasure.

Q: Now, why don’t you briefly describe the Vertical Flight Society for our readers? The organization was founded during World War II, the decades have passed. What I’m seeing this week is that there’s a vibrant community that’s pushing the envelopes of electric aviation.

Mike Hirschberg: Yes, absolutely. So, as you mentioned, we were formed actually 75 years ago, in 1943, as the American Helicopter Society. And at that time, this newfangled aircraft called the helicopter had just been invented and was starting to be used. The fixed-wing aviation world looked at it and kind of laughed. “This can’t do anything, it can’t fly very far, it can’t fly very fast, it can’t carry very much.” So the nascent industry banded together and said we needed a society for us to be successful — they were the pioneers of helicopters and vertical flight that founded us. After World War II, we expanded internationally as new types of vertical flight aircraft were studied in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, particularly by NASA and different military and research organizations. The Society quickly took a more expansive view of vertical flight and we’ve been using the tagline of the “Vertical Flight Technical Society” or the “Society for Vertical Flight” for more than 50 years. But we recently changed our name officially to the Vertical Flight Society to really better capture all of the different types of VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) aircraft.

As mentioned, this is our 8th Biennial Autonomous VTOL Technical Meeting, looking at unmanned and manned Vertical Takeoff and Landing aircraft from all sizes, from MAVs (Micro Air Vehicle) and commercial drones, military helicopters and commercial helicopters flying autonomously or more automated. And things are really interesting recently with the development of electric VTOL or air taxis. (Some people call them “flying cars” but we don’t really like that name.) The idea is, instead of a helicopter, you can develop something that some people would call a passenger drone, but something which is highly automated and which we believe will be much cheaper. They can potentially be much safer, quieter, and be able to be used for civil applications. Uber came out with their plans to develop a whole ecosystem they called Uber Elevate to be able to have a passenger-carrying taxi service, basically, or more accurately a shuttle service. And we’re actually tracking more than 140 different companies that are developing different types of eVTOL aircraft. We know many more are still in stealth mode. But on our website, evtol.news, we have these aircraft listed and just really a wide gamut of approaches that are trying to marry the different domains of vertical flight and the broader aerospace industry; the incredible progress in the last decade or so with the drone industry and autonomy; and electric power. We’re looking at the technology from the automotive industry, and artificial intelligence and all these different technical innovations together in what we think is going to be an Electric VTOL (eVTOL) Revolution that really could transform society, where large segments of the population are going to be using electric-powered vertical takeoff and landing aircraft as part of their daily lives.

Q: The UAM (Urban Air Mobility) revolution will require great changes in urban planning and infrastructure on the part of cities. Does the VFS have a role to accompany urban planners and cities concerning skyports or vertiports?

Mike Hirschberg: Yes. So again, we primarily started as a technical society and looking at helicopter aspects, but nobody knows heliports or vertiports or skyports better than we do, so we’ve actually partnered with different organizations. We’re doing a joint study with a company called Nexa Advisors and they’ve partnered with other organizations and we’re actually looking at infrastructure and all the different challenges and prospects. We’re doing a global study called Urban Air Mobility – Economics and Global Markets looking at the next 20 years and specifically looking at 70 cities around the world and saying, OK, Paris or New York, if you want to have an urban air mobility network, if you want to have air taxis flying around the city, here’s where you could put the vertiports. These are the requirements for your municipality, these are your federal requirements, this is what you need to do as far as you might have to put in a power substation to be able to provide power to the aircraft charging system. The study will be looking at all the requirements for infrastructure. So yes, it’s a very important part and we are trying to bring the community together to recognize these aspects. We have a panel tomorrow [Jan. 31] specifically on infrastructure.

Q: So you work with industry, but governments and academia as well.

Mike Hirschberg: Yes, right. So we’re not a trade association, we’re a society where our members are individuals. We do have corporate members as well, but we really want to bring together industry, academia and government organizations from around the world and look at these really tough challenges. We’re trying to tackle these tough challenges and resolve them all because any one of them could be insurmountable if you didn’t have the knowledge and the connections to be able to resolve them. So there again, there are many different potential showstoppers. So we’re trying to tackle all of them to make this successful.

Q: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the benefits of VFS membership. I believe there’s a networking feature which facilitates contacts between the members?

Mike Hirschberg: Yes. So we have over 6,000 individual members. We have an online platform that we call Hover, where individual members can exchange ideas; there are different discussion groups. People can post things, people can ask questions and get responses, and contact our members. We have other benefits as well. We have a career center with more than 150 job postings across the vertical flight industry, people looking to hire. We also post resumes. We have the world’s largest technical library of vertical flight documentation or publications. So we’ve been around for 75 years, we have several conferences a year and so we have 12,000 downloadable PDF files of articles, papers, presentations that help to inform people about the challenges and benefits of vertical flight. We’ve developed what we call the Vertipedia, which is a vertical flight encyclopedia of almost a thousand aircraft on there as well as other things like biographies of pioneers, important milestones, things like that. And we have a technical journal, so just like there’s a journal of the American Medical Association, there’s the peer-reviewed quarterly Journal of AHS on vertical flight, as well as a bimonthly member magazine called Vertiflite. And we also have a photo gallery of about 4,000 pictures. It’s been very interesting with these new aircraft. We’ll go for a visit to a company and they’ll invite us to take pictures of their new aircraft, we’ll have a walkaround of this incredible unmanned passenger drone or whatever they may call it.

Q: So, one more question if I may. Passenger traffic is increasing all the time, aviation is growing, cities are growing into megacities and the existing megacities are getting even bigger. It seems there’s a shortage of qualified personnel in aerospace. Is the VFS concerned about this, are you making any efforts in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) or in that department?

Mike Hirschberg: That’s a great question. So the answer is yes. We do have a robust STEM initiative and we’ll have a STEM activity tomorrow [Jan. 31] at the event. We have a STEM website where members or teachers can get information to talk about the cool aspects, the educational aspects of VTOL including the important exposure people have to drones. We have different things to educate engineers such as a student design competition, we have scholarships, and we have our upcoming 7th Annual Micro Air Vehicle Student Challenge (www.vtol.org/mav) where students have to develop autonomous operations. This time it’s a package pickup and delivery. So we try to do everything we can to get students attracted to the VTOL industry, attract the best and brightest, and encourage them and that’s something that’s not just in college but goes to pre-college students as well. And we know that with all these aircraft coming along, there’s going to be, at least initially, there will be a tremendous demand for pilots, but eventually things will be more and more automated. So we’re working with different organizations and working with the regulators like the FAA to help them understand the possibilities; reducing the piloting requirements using cockpit automation is called simplified vehicle operations (SVO). So if you don’t need to know how to work a carburetor and all the things that you would have to do for a general aviation aircraft, there can be reduced requirements for piloting an aircraft that’s highly automated.

Q: OK Mike, thank you so much for meeting with us.

Mike Hirschberg: My pleasure.