The Vertical Business Jet, once developed, will give the user the benefits of a fixedwing aircraft with the takeoff and landing capabilities of a helicopter
“You build a kilometre of a road, it leads you nowhere; you build a kilometre of a runway and you are connected to the world” — Anon
This oft-used adage has driven the development of aviation infrastructure over the last few decades. The progress made by a number of companies to make the Vertical Business Jet (VBJ) a viable and reliable product is indeed noteworthy. This concept has the potential of reducing dependence on traditional infrastructure requirements whilst dramatically increasing its deployment possibilities. In fact, it turns the above-quoted adage on its head. As with most innovations in the domain of aviation, the VBJ can also trace its roots to the needs of the military. A large quantum of funds has been poured into Research and Development to acquire the capability to produce the tilt-rotor Osprey, the Harrier with variable jet nozzles and a number of other features. The challenge here is to integrate various cutting edge technologies to have an economically viable aircraft that can meet with the prevailing safety standards, the sophistication expected and price of Business Jets operating in the six to eight seater, twin-engine category. Once this challenge is met with, the aircraft will find markets globally.
The VBJ, once developed, will give the user the benefits of a fixed-wing aircraft with the takeoff and landing capabilities of a helicopter. This would save on the additional time required in accessing the conventional fixed-wing Business Jet parked at a busy airport. Presently, the helicopter is widely used to connect to destinations where runways are not available.
As wonderful as they may be, helicopters adapted for business use have limitations of range and cabin space. The time spent in the helicopter cabin cannot be utilised for business-related discussions as noise and vibrations restrict meaningful conversations. Compare this to the plush and low noise environment of a Business Jet. A comparison of a typical business trip for a corporate head flying to visit a remote facility five hundred kilometres away would involve a home-to-airport-to-factory route. The first and last legs would be by surface transport or helicopter. A trip in the VBJ would comprise a direct home-to-factory route, where the productive time generated (in most cases) on a 500-kilometre trip would be as much as 50 per cent more!
There are a number of companies, where the VBJ is in various stages of development, claiming that they could have the aircraft operational as early as in 2022. That is an optimistic timeframe as the certification of a platform based on a new concept is going to be time-consuming. First, the prototype would need to be test-flown and then assigned to production. The financial challenge too would need to be addressed as large amounts of funds are required for such a project. This process also throws up the challenge of a few basics that need to be examined and understood in order to negotiate the certification process. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has delegated this process to regulators such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
In the technological aspect of the VBJ, the single most important issue, is the manner in which the aircraft will achieve roll-and-pitch control, and how the VBJ will transit from high speed horizontal flight to low speed vertical flight. This is a new concept that would demand understanding by the design teams from the point of view of the regulator. Since the dynamics of a fixed-wing aircraft are being combined with those of a rotary-wing platform, the basic premise, as to the category under which the approval is being sought, needs to be addressed. The current process of pilot licensing and dovetailing the requirements specific to this concept, would also need to be understood.
The Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) and Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL), that are fixed-wing pilot licences, are entirely different licences from the Commercial Helicopter Pilot Licence (CHPL) and ATPL (H), which are the licences for helicopter pilots. Pilot training would be another area which would need to be reviewd and restructured. Eventually, the controls in the cockpit will govern the levels of pilot expertise that is necessitated by the degree of difficulty to execute a safe and precise vertical landing and takeoff. One of the lessons learnt from the Boeing 737 MAX tragedy was that the over-dependence on technology in areas, where critical pilot skill is required, can be hazardous. All these issues need to be taken into consideration at the design stage itself.
Considering the enormous potential of the concept and the requirements of large capital to fund such a concept, there is a requirement to have a concerted awareness campaign directed at countries with large, inaccessible remote areas. India is probably one such region where the VBJ will find a large market, at the level of the governments in the states as well as among the business conglomerates. The heads of state governments are flying extensively using a combination of Business Jets and helicopters for last leg connectivity. The corporate sector has interests in relatively remote areas where the VBJ could provide a viable alternative. The availability of a VBJ may even open up areas that were not considered viable earlier. The present investment environment in India is also conducive to establish marketing and maintenance hub-centres with even the possibility of licensed production. The major stakeholders spearheading this concept need to see the potential of India not only as a marketing opportunity but also as an investment partner providing critical funding as well as a manufacturing hub at markedly lower costs.
With an amalgamation of several cutting-edge technologies into a superb package, the VBJ will be a game-changer. There are a number of advantages that this aircraft is going to bring with it once it crosses the hurdles of certification. The Asian market has enormous potential, with India possibly playing the lead role in funding, manufacture, maintenance and marketing. The companies that are investing time and effort to make a success of this project must also aim to spread awareness about it with emphasis on safety, comfort and capability.