HI Uplift: Why ‘eVTOL nirvana is a million miles away’


Helicopters commonly cruise over capital cities. But don't expect regular eVTOL services to start any time soon. (Photo credit: London Biggin Hill Airport).

Barbie and Ken. Salt and pepper. Some partnerships seem beyond question. But how about heliports and eVTOLs? Or the integration of helicopter and other fixed-wing aircraft with eVTOL commuter services? Well, maybe – but not yet.

That was the consensus to emerge from a session focusing on vertiports at the recent British Business & General Aviation Association (BBGA) conference in London. That is despite Volocopter forging ahead with plans to demonstrate the first public eVTOL services at this summer’s Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

But let’s begin with a vision of “eVTOL nirvana” from James Dillon-Godfray, head of Business Development, London Oxford Airport and London Heliport. “Nirvana will be when you have a barge or pontoon in the middle of the River Thames, next to the houses of Westminster in the heart of London. From there, you catch your eVTOL and you go to Heathrow Airport and it has cost you £50 [$64],” explained Dillon-Godfray. A 10-minute flight will replace at least an hour (and probably more) of battling city traffic. “That will be nirvana.”

Delhi and São Paulo

It’s a model that will be repeated worldwide – from Paris and New York to Delhi and São Paulo. Vertiports will sit atop city centre locations, cutting commute times and costs to ‘democratise’ aviation transport. But before that vision becomes reality, significant hurdles need to be leaped. Not least: the infrastructural support needed at heliports – such as London Heliport – and airfields, technical improvements in battery and airframe design, certification and airspace regulations and public acceptance.

Heliport infrastructure – both in terms of space and capital investment – are key questions for Dillon-Godfray. At present, there isn’t the space or time to accommodate eVTOLs at London Heliport, he said. “It’s a case of drop off and go [for helicopters]. We don’t want them hanging around. We don’t have the elbow room to setting one [an eVTOL] aside for charging, as we have very limited parking capacity.”

The cash needed for investment is another question. “We are not going to spend a single penny putting in a particular system [for eVTOL charging] that only suits one of the OEMs. The manufacturers have different systems, so there no commonality between the charging requirements for the different products,” said Dillon-Godfray. His answer is a unified approach starting now. “They [the developers] need to get their act together and come up with a commonality [of charging] systems.”

Oxford Airport is home to helicopter and fixed-wing charter business Volare Aviation, which has a purchase agreement (with deposits) in place for the Lilium Pioneer Jet.

Dillon-Godfray’s comments followed the announcement last month that Joby has agreed with Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority to launch air taxi services in the Emirate by early 2026, with Skyports to build the vertiports. An exclusivity clause specifies Joby’s right to be sole operator of air taxis in the region for six years.

£1,300 a metre

Back with the power challenge, Dillon-Godfray said in the UK it could take up to two-and-a-half years between an initial application for a new electricity supply of one to two megawatts to deliver from a distribution network operator. In reality, they could deliver much less power than promised. Plus laying underground electrical cabling to charging stations could cost up to £1,300 ($1,664) a metre. His conclusion was: “It’s hopeless at the moment for most sites [in the UK].”

Equally unimpressed by the imminent prospects of eVTOL success is Alex Durand, CEO, of helicopter and jet charter company SaxonAir and vice chair of BBGA. Helicopter and jet charter company SaxonAir operates the Velis Electro – the only certified electric powered aircraft and predicts colossal challenges in scaling up operations for eVTOLs.

While Durand would welcome the integration of eVTOLs with existing aircraft and systems as a “community asset”, he worried about unanswered questions. “When you are talking about agnostic [technology], you are talking about unproven, uncertified aircraft with [questions about] noise profiles and downforce requirements,” he said. Unlike eVTOLs, helicopters are not restricted to a particular location – even over congested areas.

“I don’t want to be negative but there’s so much that is still to be proven. I’d love to see it work but there’s a feeling you are just a battery fire away from it all being really bad,” said Durand.

‘Can’t go into a holding pattern’ 

EVTOL’s lack of endurance compared with helicopters was highlighted by Tim Fauchon, CEO, British Helicopter Association (BHA). With present technology, an eVTOL flight from London to the UK motor racing circuit at Silverstone – a journey of about 80 miles – would require a guaranteed landing at the destination or an immediate diversion. “You can’t go into a holding pattern, as you can with a conventional helicopter,” he said.

One solution to bridge the gap between now and an Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) future, featuring eVTOLs and other novel aircraft, was envisioned by Jeremy Hartley, Vertiports Policy, UK, Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The authority has just closed a consultation on design proposals for VTOL operations at existing airfields, as part of an International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) initiative.

The idea is to explore how best to set up VTOL operations at licenced and unlicenced airfields, designed not just for the aviation industry but also airfield neighbours. “The consultation is VFR [Visual Flight Rules] only and the information we start to get once we are flying into these existing airfields will lead to the regulation we are going to need, as we look forward into the future and develop bespoke [VTOL] airports,” said Hartley. “We have to start somewhere, and we’ll start with what we have and build onto it.” This ‘habituation method’ will also help to familiarise people with eVTOL aircraft and lead to wider public acceptance, he added.

So, the killer question: when will eVTOL nirvana come to pass? Dillon-Godfray’s answer is blunt: “We are a million miles away from that. We are just so far away from that and it’s the same for New York [and other places]”, he said. “It’s not going to happen in 2026 or 2027 – maybe in a decade’s time.”


HI Uplift Dashboard: Helicopters for sale

Multi engine

  • Total for sale/lease: 311 – four more than last week
  • Percentage for sale/lease: 4.14
  • Absorption rate: 5.21
  • Total fleet: 7,521 – the same as last week.

Single engine

  • Total for sale/lease: 409 – one more than last week
  • Percentage for sale/lease: 3.54
  • Absorption rate: 4.03
  • Total fleet: 11,566 – five more than last week.

      Source: AMSTAT, March 14th, 2024.