Bell and Agusta continue their development of the BA609 civil tiltrotor, a joint effort that has been ongoing for more than a decade. However, the future of the program may hinge on the joint venture’s ability to control program costs, speed certification and deliveries, as well as the success of the first squadron of military tiltrotors about to deploy to Iraq.
Currently the BA609 ranks as one of the lengthiest aircraft development programs in business aviation history, taking its place alongside the Sino-Swearingen SJ30-2 (program announced in 1989; certification in 2005) and the Hawker 4000 (program announced in 1996; certification last year).
Announced in 1996, the BA609 originally began as a partnership with Boeing and Bell. At that time, the six- to nine-passenger BA609 was priced at $8 million. Analysts now believe that the current price is in the range of $16 million to $20 million and that it will go higher by the time the first 609 is delivered, expected in 2011. After Boeing withdrew from the program, Bell and Agusta announced in 1998 that they would establish a joint venture to manage the development of the 609.
The order book for the 609 has slid from a high of 80 in 2001 to 70 today, but customers will have an opportunity to cancel their orders once a final price is announced about 25 months before delivery. During its development cycle, the 609 program has been a relatively low priority for both Bell and Agusta as the companies developed conventional helicopters with wider customer appeal, such as the AgustaWestland AW139 and the Bell 429. Bell, for instance, has only 15 employees working full-timeon the BA609 program, according to a company spokesman.
The impact of the performance of the first operational squadron of $70 million V-22 Osprey military tiltrotors could also affect the future success of the 609. U.S. Marine Corps Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 263 is scheduled to deploy to Iraq this month.
While the V-22 and 609 are different machines tailored to different missions, both have had lengthy development programs and generated their share of controversy. Operational problems with the V-22 could conceivably dampen prospects for the 609.
Currently, two 609s are flying in a developmental test program and two more are scheduled to begin flight tests within the next 18 months. The aircraft has reached a maximum forward speed of 310 knots.