Sounding Board: Five Minutes With Rob Scholl, Textron EAviation President, CEO
Rob Scholl first joined Textron Aviation’s parent company, Textron, in 2007 as manager of Textron marketing and sales, rising to director of sales and business development. In 2012, Scholl joined Textron Aviation where he has held a variety of roles, including senior vice president of sales and marketing. In March 2021, he was named senior vice president of Textron eAviation. In April 2022, Scholl was promoted to president and CEO, which became a formal division of Textron in March.
Q. Textron eAviation is focused on sustainable flying through aircraft electrification and new technologies. As head of the division, what is your focus?
I go back to what Scott [Textron CEO Scott Donnelly] charged me with in March of 2021, which he said, ‘There’s a lot of new things going on. There’s a lot of investment going into this market. It’s a challenging market, and given the size of our company, both Textron Bell and Textron Aviation, there’s probably 1,000 reasons that these technologies won’t work. He challenged me to go find the one to two ways to make a viable business case around this. So, for a little over a year now, I was looking at what we had going on internally within Textron across all of our business units, but also a lot of ideas and partnerships that people were approaching Textron with got funneled to me. During that time, the Nexus program [at Bell] started to move over to me because with everything that Bell had going on at that point in time, as well as the fact that to make an air taxi work, you were going to need fixed wing expertise, rotary craft expertise. So, we decided to centralize all of that, and it made sense to put it here in Wichita given the capabilities that Textron has here.
Q. In April, Textron purchased Slovenia-based Pipistrel, which includes Pipistrel’s Velis Electro, the world’s first and to date, only, electric aircraft to receive full type certification from EASA. What drew you to the company?
Last fall, I really got to become familiar with Pipistrel and was impressed by the fact that while a lot of people are talking about working on sustainable aviation, Ivo [Ivo Boscarol, Pipistrel founder and CEO] and the team at Pipistrel had actually found a way to bring it to reality. So, there was a lot of hard-earned experience there, both in technical aspects of it, but also how do you work with regulators, how do you bring this stuff to reality. It gives us a path starting with the Velis (Electro), which Pipistrel already has, up through the eVTOL.
Q. What are your plans with Pipistrel’s Velis Electro?
We look forward to continuing to invest in the Velis capabilities. That is a limited capability trainer, but it’s a good airplane. We would like to focus on continuing the battery development to get to a true multi-mission trainer in that class because I think that not only from the fuel aspects of reducing carbon footprint, it also helps with noise pollution as well. It’s a very quiet aircraft. The aircraft is type-certified, so it has an approved motor, an approved battery system. What we’d like to do is take that basis, both with regulators, with people using it—it uses a current infrastructure—and move over to the Panthera.
Q. What about the Panthera?
We want to get the Panthera certified. There are some challenges that have to be worked through from the regulatory side and other aspects of that aircraft, and we look forward to continue the development of the Panthera hybrid. The Panthera is a four-seat, high performance aircraft, with retractable gear, Lycoming 540 engine, certified to run on mogas. It’s a 200-knot airplane with four passengers, 800 nautical miles. Great aircraft. I think it will give us something to compete in that high-performance market. A lot of customers have seen it. It’s been around a few years. We’ve got the resources now to focus on bringing that to full certification. Once we get the airframe certified, it will then be easier over the long term to bring in the propulsion system.
Q. What is next?
Then if you look at the next step beyond that, in the Pipistrel product portfolio is the Nuuva V300, which is a 300 kilogram, about 300 nautical mile, unmanned eVTOL, taking off vertically under electric power, (with) a traditional combustion pusher engine. While you might say, ‘Well, that will be challenging’—it will, but it’s current motors and the current battery systems are common with the Velis. So, the team is doing a really good job there of taking systems that regulators have already seen and are getting familiar with and bringing it over there. So, while there are technical challenges with that platform, taking a step-by-step approach should be a little easier for regulators to get comfortable with. We have to work with airspace integration and other aspects, but given Textron is experienced with cargo customers around the world, we think that we can come up with some plans to get that aircraft some real-world experience over the next few years. And while we’re developing those products, everything that we’re working on there will also help us with the eVTOL, which is a very challenging project for a variety of reasons—technology, infrastructure, inventory wise. But it really gives us—from the Velis to the Panthera to the Nuuva to the eVTOL and the Nexus program—a step-by-step approach that if you look at the challenges here with technology, with infrastructure, with regulatory, with public acceptance, it gives us an opportunity to phase in new products and technologies that we think makes it easier to achieve the challenging missions like the urban air taxi.
Q. In January, Pipistrel announced that it had chosen Right Rudder Aviation, based in Inverness, Florida, as its U.S. distributor. How is that going?
The Electro is a type-certified light sport aircraft in Europe. It’s fully electric and has about 50 minutes of range. You have to think about ranges in time and not necessarily nautical miles. It’s really a good local area trainer. You can go up and do some maneuvers. You can do pattern work. It’s really the only aircraft in the world that’s doing real training missions as a full electric and our dealer here in the U.S., Right Rudder, just supported the first U.S. private pilot check ride in an electric airplane, in the Velis Electro.
Q. What about the Nuuva?
The Nuuva is a little hard to explain. It’s basically a flying cargo truck with eight vertical motors, propellers, propulsors, and then one pusher in the back that is currently planned to be powered by a Rotax engine. The idea is like a distribution-to-distribution service network for cargo customers. Something that I know from my experience and working with our cargo customers, it’s a really interesting market for them. They like those capabilities. If you look at Pipistrel, in addition to their experience with electrical propulsion, they’ve also been doing some unmanned platforms, or optionally piloted, with the surveyor program that the U.S. Special Forces command is actually operating right now. So, they’ve got a lot of interesting experience there as well in optional piloted capabilities.
Q. What will it take to unlock the U.S. market?
We need to get the rules in place here with the FAA to allow the Velis, for an aircraft like that, to be certified in the U.S. I think that’s really what it would take to unlock the U.S. market. There are already a number of customers in Europe who are already flying that aircraft for training missions. We’ll expand the capabilities as well. We’re already looking at the next generation Velis with some more capable battery packs to really extend that range. What we’d like to do is get to an aircraft in the near future that ultimately allows you to do that cross-country flight if you’re looking at a private pilot’s license. I think that magic number needs to go to three hours of range Then I think you’ve got a really good training aircraft that can be used around flight schools all around the world.
Q. What do you think the Advanced Air Mobility space will look like in five or 10 years?
I think you will begin to see the number of viable businesses or ideas start to rise to the top. I think that process is already taking place. There are a lot of companies who have raised a lot of money, but as you’ve seen, things in aviation tend to be pretty expensive. From a business standpoint, I think what sets us apart is with the Velis, with products like the Panthera, the customers for those products already exist. A lot of the regulatory framework already exists for those aircraft. We can bring something to the market now that’s real—get the public comfortable with electric aviation and get people excited about sustainable aviation.
When you go to the NUUVA, which tests other aspects of the empty ecosystem like infrastructure, like regulators, we can continue to bring those things to the market, I think. Going for that really challenging product like the eVTOL, which we’re doing, is good, but it’s a challenge [if you’re a company] to have that as your only product. Can you put together a business model that allows you to put together the really high returns that a lot of companies are promising to their investors, I think is challenging in the short term. There’s a lot of opportunity in the long term. I think companies are going to have to be careful and efficient with their investment dollars over this decade to try to bring those products to market. When you look at the 15-year time frame, I can’t tell you exactly what we’re going to see, but there’s a lot of really cool stuff that’s coming along.
Q. What is the biggest challenge?
I don’t think it’s technology. As companies have shown, you can make these fly. I think the economics of it are very challenging. It runs from fixed asset cost to certification cost. If you look at the ongoing business model for these air taxi operations that a lot of people are talking about, it runs everything from having aviation grade electric motors to battery systems that are right now reliant on kind of unproven and not readily available battery cells, which are expensive. Those need to continue to develop and for the economics to come down.
Q. What about other challenges?
I think the other big challenge is really the infrastructure side of this. How do you get these aircraft in what is already dense urban airspace where air traffic controllers are largely already taxed in their capacity to handle more aircraft. How do you integrate those? I don’t think we should overlook, though, the impact of public acceptance. These will be novel technologies operating in new ways. Those of us in aviation, we love airplanes. We’d love to get in these. I think a lot of these air taxis are going to be small aircraft in the beginning. I think we’ve got to work with the public to get them comfortable with it. But we also can’t rush this because if we have issues early on, we risk putting a big damper across the entire market. We’ve got to make sure as an industry we take a pretty cautious approach to this to make sure we keep the history of safety that we’ve built over decades.
Q. What will it take to build out the infrastructure to support it all?
My opinion is right now, as an industry, the discussion around ground infrastructure is a little ahead of where it probably should be. I think that we’re going to see—before viable air taxi businesses are out there, we’re probably going to be at the end of the decade at the earliest. I think there’s a lot to be played out by the size of the aircraft, the weight of the aircraft, your charging infrastructures. What type of voltage do you need? I think the infrastructure can come along with the technology as it goes forward. I think the bigger issue is the airspace infrastructure.
Q. What about airspace?
There are competing ideas on how you handle the airspace integration of these. Even NASA hasn’t decided what’s the best model yet to propose. If and when we decide on an infrastructure that we like, then we have to go find the funds and the resources to go implement those plans. I think a lot of the flying you will see early on with optional piloted will be not in your dense urban cores. I think you’ll be seeing missions here in Wichita. There’d be a great mission if you’re a cargo customer here in Wichita and you have to go out to Great Bend (Kansas) every day, I think that’s a really good mission to try this out. You’re carrying cargo over not heavily populated areas. I think that there’s a lot of opportunities to work within environments like this.
Q. Will Textron ever build these aircraft in Wichita or in the U.S.?
For the Pipistrel products, the production will continue and go to Italy. If we hopefully get the production growth for Pipistrel, all options are open. A far as the air taxis go, I think we have some time to decide that. Obviously, we have a long history here in Wichita. We also have a good base of operation down in Fort Worth with Bell. That will be things we decide over the coming years.
Q. You were on a panel recently and discussed whether we are at a Wright Brothers moment with Advanced Air Mobility. What do you think?
What we talked about as a panel is we’re not quite at the Wright Brothers moment—we’re past the Wright Brothers moment. People have shown we can do this stuff. Now, we’re in the phase where now we’re going to take all this stuff and go make viable businesses out of them. I think that’s what’s going to be exciting over the next few years. I think there’s going to be a lot of really interesting ideas that happen in the next 15 years that probably none of us can predict.