Nolen’s Next Move Is Air Taxi Safety

Former Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen tells FLYING why he joined Archer Aviation and what the company has planned for the future.

Billy Nolen Archer Midnight

Archer Chief Safety Officer Billy Nolen stands in front of the firm’s flagship Midnight air taxi. [Courtesy: Business Wire]

Billy Nolen has made quite the career out of safe flying, first as a safety officer for American Airlines, Qantas, and WestJet, and later as acting administrator of the FAA, a position he held for about 15 months before announcing his decision to step down in April.

Now Nolen, a pilot of 42 years, has begun the next phase of his journey: ensuring the safety of aircraft that have never flown.

In June, the former FAA head joined air taxi firm Archer Aviation as its chief safety officer, a position newly created by CEO Adam Goldstein. According to the company’s latest executive hire, certification of the company’s flagship Midnight air taxi is going smoothly—so much so that he expects it to fly globally within a decade.

“In 2032, 2033, you’ll see us in major cities in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world,” Nolen told FLYING.

Here’s what else the former FAA head had to say.

Why Archer?

With the FAA, Nolen said he had three goals. Two of them were to invest in safety management systems (SMS) for major airline operations and to maintain U.S. global leadership in aviation. But the third was a bit more challenging: establishing the U.S. as the key enabler of advanced air mobility (AAM), electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL), and other emerging technologies.

“What really drew me to that was thinking there are already pieces of this in place,” Nolen recounted. “The FAA had the Center for Emerging Concepts and Innovation (CECI). I think we need a forcing function, and that was Innovate 2028, which really was a catalyzing moment for the agency. It pulled a lot of these resources into really a focus on just how we go about enabling eVTOLs, UAS, etc.”

Innovate 2028 is a program Nolen alluded to in a Wall Street Journal interview in May and again in an appearance on CNBC's “Squawk Box” in June. Not much is known about the initiative, but the former FAA head said it will involve showcasing air taxis at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic Games—a demonstration Archer wants to be a part of.

According to Nolen, the decision to join the air taxi firm was not necessarily an easy one.

“Initially, I had lots of offers come in from all over the space. After nearly 20 years of government service (military, plus the FAA), I felt like it was the right time for me and my family to return to private industry,” he said. “I still have offers coming in today, to be quite honest.”

At least for now, though, Nolen plans to stay put. While working with Archer in his capacity with the FAA, he developed an appreciation for the company’s “strong and robust safety culture.” He also sung the praises of Goldstein and the Archer team, whom he described as “extremely passionate.”

“The thing I found compelling about Archer, one, was Adam Goldstein’s vision about that idea of ‘unlocking the skies,’ to allow us to reimagine how we move,” Nolen said. “That drew me to [Archer], and not only that. It was just a combination of the team of executives here and the 600-plus members.”

He continued, “I felt very comfortable coming aboard Archer. It felt like it’s the kind of organization that I wanted to be associated with.”

Having spent a year and change leading the FAA on an acting basis, Nolen also valued Archer’s longstanding relationship with the agency. The company just hosted more than 70 representatives from the freshly formed Federal AAM Interagency Working Group at its Salinas, California, test facility and has worked closely with the agency on certification for nearly half a decade.

“There’s been this clear focus of saying, ‘The only way for us to get there, through the certification process and full-on commercialization, is to show ourselves as strong partners and prepared to go execute,’” he said.

Nolen’s Big Plans

While Nolen’s new job as chief safety officer will encompass several responsibilities, the former FAA head has one core goal.

“The key thing will be that the public has to have this sense that it’s safe,” he said, referring to the company’s planned air taxi routes with Midnight.

Midnight, Archer’s five-seat production eVTOL, recently began initial flight testing in Salinas. A winged aircraft supported by 12 propellers, the air taxi is expected to have a range of 100 sm (87 nm) but will be optimized for 20 to 50 sm (17 to 43 nm) urban trips, primarily to and from airports in the early going.

Despite its novelty, Nolen believes the public will perceive Midnight as being as safe as a Boeing 787 or Airbus A350.

“What I bring to this, given my three-plus decades of experience in safety and operations, is just making sure that there is no stone left unturned, that as we come to market, our SMS is par excellence,” he said. “I expect to play a major part in terms of ensuring that we have the absolute best SMS in the world.”

“What I bring to this, given my three-plus decades of experience in safety and operations, is just making sure that there is no stone left unturned.”

Billy Nolen, Chief Safety Officer, Archer Aviation

Nolen cited collaboration with the FAA as key to Archer’s future success. In his view, the company’s goal of flying worldwide within a decade aligns with the agency’s own mission: to cement American leadership in AAM.

“This is really about U.S. leadership in the world,” he said. “You’ve got other big regulators: [the European Union Aviation Safety Agency], Transport Canada, [National Civil Aviation Agency] in Brazil, [Japanese Civil Aviation Bureau], etc. But the U.S. has proven that it is the number one, that it will always be a global leader.”

In March, Archer began construction on Phase 1 of its Covington, Georgia, production plant, which it expects to begin producing 650 units per year by mid-2024. By the end of Phase 2, it will be capable of churning out thousands of Midnight aircraft annually. But the completion of Phase 1, Nolen said, should align with Archer’s certification timeline, readying the company for a 2025 commercial launch.

By the 2028 Olympic Games, he expects Archer and other key players—perhaps including rival Joby—to begin operating nationwide.

“I expect that the major players, those who are successful and have been able to execute, will be at scale,” he predicted. “Focus on those companies that have a level of rigor, that are committed to a rapid approach to execution, getting through the regulatory hurdles that are thereby designed to give the public the sense that this is a safe mode of transportation.”

Nolen’s projections will depend on a multitude of factors, from internal conflict within the FAA to the development of air taxi infrastructure to the success (or failure) of Midnight’s flight testing. But as the former FAA head charts the future of aviation with his new company, one thing is for certain—he’ll look really cool doing it.

Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

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