Aerospace Outlook

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by Royce Lowe

Fighters, the FAA Again, and Taxis

Australia, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Israel, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, South Korea, Switzerland, and the U.K. are already operating or awaiting delivery of, different variants of the Lockheed-Martin F-35A fighter jet. Germany and Finland hopped aboard the list in the last 13 months.

Now Canada has come forward with an order for 88 F-35As for which it will pay  $14.2-billion (C$19-billion), with deliveries expected to begin in 2026. The deal includes the cost of outfitting two Royal Canadian Air Force bases (Cold Lake, Alberta., Bagotville, Quebec.) to house the new aircraft, which are replacing Canada’s fleet of Boeing F-18 fighter jets. Canada chose the F-35 last March over options offered by Boeing and Saab, following a long debate in which the Trudeau government had opposed the Lockheed selection. 

The RCAF’s new fleet could be fully operational by 2032, according to Defense Minister Anita Anand. 

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) appointed a new panel of aerospace experts and industry representatives to review safety-management procedures at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, and how those procedures are influencing the OEM’s “safety culture” in the aftermath of two 737 MAX crashes, in 2018 and 2019. Those incidents killed 346 passengers and crew members aboard the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines jets, and led to a 19-month shutdown of the 737 MAX program.  The panel will have nine months to conduct its inquiry and issue a report, together with any recommendations.

The investigation into the causes of the two crashes focused on the electronic flight control systems of the 737 MAX, which Boeing redesigned before FAA and other safety agencies re-certified the aircraft’s airworthiness, and its return to commercial operations in 2021. 

However, the 2019-2020 investigation into the 737 MAX also led to accusations that Boeing had pushed its engineers and safety inspectors to expedite their work on the aircraft in the period leading up to its initial certification, in 2017.  Following those allegations, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to strengthen the FAA’s authority over aircraft production and certification processes.  The new FAA panel is a product of that Congressional oversight. The panel includes representatives of FAA, NASA, aerospace unions, Boeing rival Airbus, engine builders GE Aviation and Pratt & Whitney, and 737 MAX operators American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines.

Stellantis NV will become a manufacturing partner to start-up Archer Aviation for Archer’s new electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, and will  invest up to $150 million by 2024. Archer is building a manufacturing plant in Covington, Ga., which is scheduled to be in production by next year. 

An eVTOL, which might be described as an urban air taxi, is an electric-powered aircraft able to hover, take-off, and land vertically. The Archer Midnight eVTOL will be powered by lithium-ion battery packs, and is designed to carry up to four passengers, plus a pilot. It will have a range of 100 miles, but will be mostly used for shorter distances. It will have a short charging time, around 10 minutes. It will be effectively a shuttle craft for service in dense urban areas. 

Archer will provide expertise in eVTOL design, electric powertrain and certification, and Stellantis will contribute advanced manufacturing technology and expertise, plus personnel. “The goal is for Stellantis to mass produce Archer’s eVTOL aircraft as its exclusive contract manufacturer,” according to a joint statement. In addition to the capital investment, Stellantis plans to raise its existing stake in Archer through open-market stock purchases, though CEO Carlos Tavares said the automaker would remain a minority stakeholder.

Among the airframe manufacturers involved in different eVTOL projects are Airbus, Boeing, and Embraer, with propulsion systems being developed by GE Aviation, Rolls-Royce, and Pratt & Whitney, among others. Honeywell Inc. is developing avionics technology specific to eVTOL operation.

Automakers involved in the eVTOL sector include Honda, Hyundai, Renault, and Toyota. Commercial airlines also are investors in eVTOLs, including United Airlines: it has committed itself to the Embraer Eve project as well as to Archer Aviation.

In November, Archer and United Airlines announced they will establish the first commercial electric air-taxi route in the U.S., from Manhattan to Newark Liberty International Airport. No launch date was indicated. 

Author profile:Royce Lowe, Manufacturing Talk Radio, UK and EU International Correspondent, Contributing Writer, Manufacturing Outlook. ν