By Gene Trainor, FAA’s Compliance and Airworthiness Division
Friends from Iowa often describe that state’s seasons as too hot, too cold, and too short. Further east, Mark Twain once quipped, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” Here in Texas, people say it gets so hot that hens lay hard-boiled eggs.
We all have locale-based weather stories that climate change tends to complicate and/or exacerbate. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that in the United States, eight of the top ten warmest years on record for the contiguous 48 states have occurred since 1998, looking at years 1901 through 2015. 2012 and 2015 were the two warmest years on record.
In addition to sparking more frequent wildfires and wreaking havoc on the farming industry, temperature increases also impact helicopter flight performance. Warmer air is less dense, causing rotor blades to produce less lift. Engine power output is reduced.
The Crossroads in U.S. Weather
The helicopter industry understands these concerns and is sensitive to the needs of the environment. One way they have responded is by developing electric helicopters and vertical take-off-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicles. The FAA started working with these companies early on as they began developing technology that could transform American transportation.
In 2018, an electric helicopter set a Guinness World Record for the farthest distance traveled by an electric helicopter. The lithium battery-powered manned rotorcraft flew 30 nautical miles to an 800 foot altitude with an average speed of 80 knots.
eVTOL, is also taking off. Many companies are looking to create urban air taxis that fly above heavy traffic getting people quickly to their destinations. Some also will be designed to fly long distances. For example, there is a six-passenger battery-powered eVTOL currently in development that is expected to fly up to 250 nautical miles between charges.
NASA’s solar-powered helicopter, Ingenuity, represents another innovation. Ingenuity’s Mars flight was the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet. The initial flight lasted 39.1 seconds.
“We have been thinking for so long about having our Wright brothers moment on Mars, and here it is,” Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung said in a statement. “We will take a moment to celebrate our success and then take a cue from Orville and Wilbur regarding what to do next. History shows they got back to work to learn as much as they could about their new aircraft, and so will we.”
Gene Trainor works as the communications specialist/executive technical editor for the FAA’s Compliance and Airworthiness Division.