After years of asking, Agusta might get more work on 609

 - September 24, 2008, 6:07 AM

Bell Helicopter in July at the Farnborough 2008 airshow strongly hinted it is about to transfer more work to partner AgustaWestland in the protracted BA609 tiltrotor program. “We are looking for the most efficient way to get the aircraft certified and we’ll possibly find some efficiencies in Italy,” said Mike Blake, Bell’s executive v-p for customer solutions. Speaking at another press conference during the show, AgustaWestland CEO Giuseppe Orsi commented, “We are working with Bell to optimize the program; our goal is to certify the tiltrotor as soon as possible.”

Earlier, a Bell spokesman denied speculation that the company planned to pull the plug on its Bell/Agusta BA609 civil tiltrotor program or sell its entire stake in the program to Italian development partner AgustaWestland. The speculation about Bell’s future in the program escalated in July when Bell CEO Richard Millman told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “We designed the 609 for a new U.S. market, and unfortunately we are not seeing that materialize, so we are looking at all options that make sense for the future of this program.”

Bell’s and AgustaWestland’s respective shares in the program are believed to be 60/40, despite conflicting numbers given by the two companies.

Seeking to accelerate the program, AgustaWestland has long tried to convince Bell to transfer more work to Italy. So far, it seems Bell/Agusta Aerospace delays the BA609 program by one year every year. This year, it has postponed its certification target from “2010/2011,” as announced in June 2007, to “2011/early 2012,” according to a new development schedule released by AgustaWestland. Blake called 2011 an “unchanged” schedule. Last year at the Paris Airshow, CEO Giuseppe Orsi had pledged to exhibit a customer-delivered aircraft at the 2011 event.

The number of hours flown in the flight-test program has remained practically static for five months, at about 300 hours. One BA609 flies from Bell’s test facilities in Arlington, Texas, while a second test aircraft flies from Cameri, an Italian air force base near Milan. Test pilots have explored the flight envelope to 25,000 feet and 310 knots. Blake said the next two test aircraft will “probably” be earmarked for Europe.
At February’s Singapore airshow, a Bell/Agusta executive issued AIN a bullish update on the program, saying it would add some 100 flight-test hours this year. He also asserted that a combined 220 engineers work in the program in Italy and the U.S. Last year the FAA froze the airworthiness certification basis of the 12-passenger aircraft. The BA609 first flew in 2003.

Despite the delay, Bell/Agusta confirmed plans for a search-and-rescue variant of
the BA609. Thanks to its 275-knot speed, the BA609 would reduce typical helicopter mission time by 44 percent. At more than 300 nm from the coast, a BA609 could recover up to six people with its hoist.

Mark Huber contributed to this article.