An Interview with Damian Hirschier, a certified test pilot that holds an Airline Transport Pilot License with a Category 1 Flight Test Rating. He flew more than 130 different aircraft types ranging from gliders up to airliners including 15 first flights of prototypes.
By Katerina S. Urbanova
You have performed a flight in an electrical air taxi – Volocopter – at the Helsinki International Airport at the very end of August. This flight was successfully integrated into both the Air Traffic Management (ATM) and Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) system. How difficult was this integration and what does it mean for the future of air taxis – both unmanned and piloted flights and the whole field of the Urban Air Mobility?
The main challenge of this project at Helsinki Airport was the coordination of the ATM and the UTM system because currently, these are two separate systems. With the mission in Helsinki, we proofed that this is possible. So far the whole airspace was the domain of the ATM.
Can you tell us more about the Single European Sky initiative and why is it so important?
The primary objective of the Single European Sky Initiative is to enhance the safety and efficiency of air transport in Europe. When it was launched in 2004 most probably nobody imagined that at some point in time we will talk about Urban Air Mobility. The increasing number of drones and other vehicles such as the Volocopter, operating the airspace has forced the aviation sector to rethink the concept of Air Traffic Management. In Europe the, the European Commission has launched the concept of U-Space, a set of decentralized services created to integrate drones and Urban Air Mobility in toe airspace and to enable them to operate together with manned aircraft. Ironically Switzerland, which is not a member of the European Union, takes a leading role in the integration of Urban Air Mobility into the ATM. Several stakeholders have worked on products and services linked to U-Space. With the view to ensure transparency and inclusiveness, the Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) has facilitated the creation of the Swiss U-Space Implementation platform. This is a step in the right direction.
You flew more than 130 different aircraft types ranging from gliders up to airliners including 15 first flights of prototypes. In which way was flying Volocopter different, if at all? Can you describe the biggest challenges and how did you overcome those?
All the technologies we currently have in the commercial and private aviation were developed towards the end of world war 2. In the past 70 years, the technologies were modernized but there was no breakthrough. The Volocopter is a completely new technology. At first glance, it looks like the Volocopter behaves like a helicopter, but it is very different than a helicopter. A helicopter is by definition an inherently unstable platform whereas the Volcopter is an inherently stable platform. This means that the flight control system of the Volocopter is designed to stabilize itself if there is no input from the pilot. The only thing that the Volocopter has in common with a helicopter is that it can do vertical takeoffs and landings. Another point which was completely new for me is that the Volcopter only has one control stick which controls all axis. Helicopters have three controls, a control stick, rudder pedals and a collective. Aeroplanes also have three controls, a control stick, rudder pedals and a power lever. In the Volcoopter all control inputs are made with one control which looks more like a joystick. This was completely new for me and I had to adapt myself to this kind of control. Flying the Volocopter can not be compared with flying a helicopter and it can also not be compared with flying an aeroplane. It is something new.
I can understand that it takes many hours before the actual flight for you to prepare for such an important event. What do you feel at the actual day/morning on the day of the flight? Are you rather excited, maybe a little bit nervous? What is going through your head?
Before this kind of flights, I try to focus 100% on the upcoming mission. It is comparable to sports athletes before a race or a competition. I do a kind of mental training where I fly the mission many times in my head before the actual mission. Of course, it is not possible that I can prepare myself for all cases which can happen during such a flight, but if I’m well prepared I would have more capacity to handle unexpected things.
As with everything, even if you are the only one flying the Volocopter, it still is teamwork. Who do you work the closest with, do you know these people well you have to rely on?
Absolutely. It is teamwork and I wouldn’t be able to fly the Volocopter without the team. Primarily I’m in very close contact with the flight test team. Everybody in the flight test team has a dedicate role. For me, it is also very important to understand the systems of the aircraft which I fly, in this case, the Volocopter. I’m also in very close contact with the people who designed the flight control system of the Volocopter. Before I took off with the Volocopter the first time, I spend many hours in the workshop and observed the mechanics and the engineers working on the Volocopter. This gave me a lot of confidence.
How do you personally see the future of Urban Air Mobility, in what way it will improve our lives, what benefits will it bring? Where do you see its biggest potential?
For me, Urban Air Mobility is a new chapter in aviation history. It is difficult to say in which direction it will go, but I’m almost sure that it will bring benefits to our lives. Most of the people think of Urban Air Mobility to transport people from one point to another in a big city, but I think there is much more. There are many other potential use cases from which all of us can benefit. One such use case would be that a Volocopter can be used to bring an emergency doctor to an accident site. There are still some challenges ahead of us until Urban Air Mobility will be a “normal” thing. In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges will be the integration of this kind of air mobility into the current airspace structure. We already demonstrated at Helsinki that it is possible to integrate it into commercial air traffic. One of the next missions will be to investigate how it can be integrated into an urban environment. This will only work if all of the stakeholders join forces.
So far, I have never met a pilot to whom flying is just a job. What is being up in the sky for you?
I’m most probably like most of the pilots out there. Flying is a passion for me. In flying there are many different disciplines, like recreational flying, airline flying, aerobatics flying, etc. Test flying is one of the disciplines of flying. In my opinion test pilots are not better pilots than any other pilot. They are just trained for this special discipline of flying.
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