Aerobility Eyes Accessible AAM As Grob Able Books Second Sale

Able
Credit: Angus Batey / BAV

The British charity Aerobility, which works to change the lives of disabled people by giving them the opportunity to fly, has confirmed a second sale of its Grob 109B Able, and is engaging with the advanced air mobility (AAM) sector to try to ensure the next generation of small aircraft is accessible to all. 

The charity developed the Able aircraft after acquiring the Royal Air Force’s complete fleet of Grob Vigilant powered gliders. In partnership with the German airframer and UK-based Southern Sailplanes, the Able is a Vigilant with new engine, propeller and avionics, with its cockpit adapted for disabled passengers and pilots. 

The charity acquired around 60 airframes and is converting them one at a time, with profits from sales funding acquisition of every fifth or sixth aircraft for Aerobility’s own fleet. 

The Able was launched in 2021 with the first sale made to David Pilkington, whose aircraft was delivered in March.

Its second customer, Guy Westgate, a glider instructor and display pilot, flew an Able from Aerobility’s headquarters at Blackbushe Airport, Hampshire, to the AERO Friedrichshafen show in Germany, in April, where the aircraft attracted considerable interest. 

“I reckon there’s probably 10, 12 pretty good leads there,” Aerobility CEO Mike Miller-Smith says. “The airplane is just surprising us all the time. When we took it to Germany it cruised at 100 knots and burned less than 12 liters an hour. As a touring airplane it’s pretty impressive; as a sustainable, economical aeroplane it’s exceptional. But it’s also a very tough training airplane.”

As well as giving the pilot the option to, as Miller-Smith puts it, “stop the engine and enjoy soaring the sky” as a glider on a good-weather day, Aerobility is beginning to investigate other ways in which flying the Able could be accomplished without emitting any carbon. Discussions are at an early stage, but there is potential for some of the future fleet to fly on electricity. 

“At Friedrichshafen, we met a number of companies that are working on electric flight, hydrogen fuel cells, hybrid power plants—and some of them look pretty good,” Miller-Smith says. The 100 hp engine and the robust airframe present an attractive use case for companies developing alternative powerplants, he says.

“Some of these companies approached us to say, ‘It’s perfect for our power plant’,” Miller-Smith says. “So, we are starting a number of conversations with universities in Germany, and also with companies here in the UK; one or two universities and one or two commercial companies developing electric power plant solutions. We’ve got a lot of spare airplanes and can make some of the ones available that we probably will never sell. We’ll definitely keep some aside and hopefully, get them into the electric-flight community as development [testbeds]. As a charity, I would love us to be as sustainable as possible. If we can move to electric flight with a certified solution, that’s absolutely the right thing to do.”

Aerobility has also been involved in discussions with the AAM sector in a bid to prevent it making some of the mistakes that make today’s commercial aircraft so difficult for many disabled people to access as passengers. 

“One-fifth of the population of the world has a disability,” Miller-Smith says. “Wheelchair travel for commercial airplanes is a problem now because, 50 years ago, airliner design didn’t think about accessibility. We want to make sure accessibility is baked into AAM, so it will never be a problem in the future.”

Following a collaborative white paper on accessible advanced aircraft, written with the Civic Air Transport Association, a trade body for the AAM sector, the charity was contacted by the Vertical Flight Society. 

The Vertical Flight Society performs a yearly global student design competition; this year's eVTOL is sponsored by Bell, Miller-Smith says. 

“This year, together, we’ve collaborated to make the competition to design an accessible eVTOL,” he says. “There are 25 universities around the world, on every continent, entering this competition—the brightest engineering talent in the world thinking about designing accessible eVTOLs. That’s an example of some of the influence we’ve had, really just by asking the question.”

A third finished Able is now operating in the charity’s fleet as a demonstrator. It appeared at Aerobility’s third annual Armchair Airshow, which took place at Biggin Hill Airport in London on May 28. It will be in the static display at the Farnborough Airshow in July. By that time, Aerobility hopes to have more sales to announce. 

Editor's Note: Details about the student eVTOL design competition and its sponsorship were clarified.