AgustaWestland Buys Bell’s Stake in BA609 Tiltrotor

 - June 30, 2011, 7:05 AM

AgustaWestland is purchasing full ownership of the BA609 civil tiltrotor program from Bell Helicopter. AW’s new CEO, Bruno Spagnolini, and Bell CEO John Garrison announced the deal at the Paris Air Show on June 21. Under the proposed agreement, subject to regulatory approval, Bell will continue to provide engineering, program management services, and key component manufacture on the 609. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. Garrison stressed that it did not include any technology transfer from the military Bell/Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor. He said that Bell would continue to invest in that technology with the goal of competing in the Pentagon’s anticipated Joint Multi-Role helicopter program. (See “U.S. Army wants revolutionary new helos,” AIN, June, page 53)

Announced in 1996, the 609 was originally a partnership between Boeing and Bell. At that time the six- to nine-seat executive version was priced at $8 million; however, the current unit cost is believed to be approaching $30 million. After Boeing withdrew from the program, Bell and Agusta formed the Bell/Agusta Aircraft Company in 1998 to develop the 609 as a joint venture.

After some initial market enthusiasm, the order book for the 609 peaked at 80 and, as the program dragged on, many of those orders became tenuous at best.

Devlopment Drags On

The first 609 prototype flew in 2003 and a second joined the program in 2007. Through the first quarter, the pair had accumulated nearly 600 flight-test hours. Two more prototypes, said to be under construction, never appeared. In recent years, discord between the two companies over the program spilled into public view, with AW’s former CEO, Giuseppe Orsi, telling the media that the program would move faster if his company had a larger role in it.

Meanwhile, AW and Bell had relegated the 609 to the back burner, with each company devoting most of its resources to its own more lucrative civil and military programs. Speaking to AIN in Paris, Bell’s Garrison hinted that the resource demands of the company’s other programs drove it to divest itself of the BA609. “This decision is going to allow Bell to increase our investment on the revolutionary V-22 and to develop the next-generation tiltrotor technologies for U.S. Department of Defense programs and other applications, as well as to increase our investment in our innovative commercial product line.”

AW has consistently remained bullish on the 609. In 2008, the company revealed a search-and-rescue variant of the aircraft and hinted that the Italian government could be in line to buy as many as 50 for coastal patrol. A year later, the CEO of AW parent company Finmeccanica, Pier Guargualini, predicted an overall demand for as many as five hundred 609s in its first decade of production.

The twin P&WC PT6-67A-powered 609 would seem ideally suited for a less price-sensitive, government-backed overwater SAR role. It has an mtow of 16,800 pounds, and preliminary flight test data indicates the aircraft has an unrefueled range of 700 nm (boosted to 950 nm with auxiliary fuel tanks), a cruise speed of 275 knots (maximum forward speed 310 knots) and a service ceiling of 25,000 feet. In utility configuration it could carry up to 12 passengers and crew.