BA609 flight tests continue in Italy

 - December 19, 2006, 3:58 AM

The second prototype of the Bell/Agusta BA609 tiltrotor has been flying in airplane mode since November 9 (see AIN, December 2006, page 3). It operates from Cameri, an Italian Air Force airfield near Milan.

The third prototype, said to be on the production line in Vergiate, is scheduled to fly next year. During a visit to AgustaWestland facilities near Milan early last month, AIN was unable to see either prototype No. 2 or No. 3. Certification is pegged for 2010.

Bell/Agusta is conducting two parallel flight-test programs, one at Bell’s flight-test facilities in Arlington, Texas, and one at Cameri. Engineers on both sides of the Atlantic share their experiences, so a sortie in Cameri benefits both aircraft test programs. An AgustaWestland spokesperson told AIN that although the airframe is checked regularly, such inspections are not as extensive as they were on the first prototype, which was completely disassembled after 14 hours.

AgustaWestland, which has a 40-percent stake in the program, is responsible for the government/military version of the BA609. That model does not differ from Bell’s civil version. Modifications–such as a hoist–will be introduced later in the program through various kits.

AgustaWestland says it has an undisclosed government customer for the BA609 tiltrotor, and the U.S. Marines has expressed interest for training purposes. Since it is much smaller than the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, the BA609 could be suitable as a less expensive platform for military initial tiltrotor training.

Readying such a hybrid for flight test forced AgustaWestland to change the way it has heretofore tested rotorcraft. One of the first differences is the location of the flight tests. Airspace constraints prompted AgustaWestland to choose Cameri airfield instead of the firm’s flight-test center in Vergiate, near Milan Malpensa Airport.

Vergiate’s proximity to Malpensa generally does not pose a problem because helicopters in flight test need little airspace. However, because the BA609 flies twice as fast as helicopters, the chase aircraft is a fixed-wing airplane, which needs much more airspace to maneuver and could therefore have interfered with Malpensa’s airspace. Flight testing will return to Vergiate as the test pilots expand the envelope, an AgustaWestland spokesperson told AIN.