HAI Convention News

AW609 Finally Ready for its Close-up

 - February 11, 2012, 9:25 PM
AgustaWestland is demonstrating the AW609 civil tiltrotor at Heli-Expo 2012.

Agusta Westland Tilt Rotor Co. (AWTR) flew an AW609 (née BA609) tiltrotor at Arlington Municipal Airport yesterday. The company also provided an update on the program, which comes in the aftermath of AgustaWestland’s taking over full ownership of the 609 project when former partner Bell Helicopter relinquished its half last November.

AgustaWestland established AWTR to complete certification and bring the AW609 to market, with its U.S. headquarters based at AWTR’s new office-hangar complex at the airport.

Though development of the civil tiltrotor has lagged in recent years, the allure of tiltrotor technology remains strong, as it combines the vertical-lift capability of helicopters with the higher speed and longer range of fixed wing aircraft.

Resembling a half-scale V22 Osprey, the AW609 is expected to have a maximum takeoff weight (mtow) of 16,800 pounds, a maximum cruise speed of 275 knots, a range of 700 nm (with no reserves), a 25,000-foot service ceiling and a climb rate of 2,500 to 3,000 fpm. AWTR plans no change in the performance envelope, but may seek an increase in takeoff weight for short-takeoff performance, versus the current mtow, which is based on vertical takeoff operations.

According to the company, yesterday’s approximately nine-minute flight marked the first public flight demonstration of the AW609 since the Farnborough Air Show in 2008. Experimental test pilot Pietro Venanzi, who commanded the demo flight, showcased N609TR’s maneuverability in both vertical, horizontal and transitional nacelle configurations in the traffic pattern and in maneuvers over the apron in front of onlookers. Transition of the nacelles from full vertical to horizontal appeared seamless with no visible change to the aircraft pitch or flight path. The aircraft was surprisingly quiet in its fixed-wing configuration, with the growl of the two Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6C-67A turboshaft engines increasing as the nacelles tilted toward vertical.

The company said it has orders for close to 70 aircraft from 40 customers in 15 countries, though it declined to identify any of the buyers or whether they had paid deposits for their positions. Some of those orders will likely be contingent on the final price, which AWTR has yet to announce.

According to Bell, early in the last decade the 609 was priced at $8-10 million adjusted to the year of delivery. Subsequently, outside estimates on the price have been as high as $30 million. AWTR said it will announce the price 25 months before first delivery.

Clive Scott, program manager, said the company is in contact with position holders but has given them little guidance on final cost. Nonetheless, officials are bullish on prospects, estimating that 450 to 500 AW609s will be built over a 20-year period.

In the executive/transport configuration, the aircraft will carry eight to nine passengers, but AWTR sees many other applications, including oil-and-gas operations, search and rescue and border and maritime patrol. “I’m sure there are many applications out there we haven’t conceived of yet, in interesting ways that are yet to be invented” said Robert LaBelle, AWTR Managing Director. The aircraft will have a digital glass cockpit and avionics suite, though AWTR declined to disclose potential suppliers.

Venanzi said the company is designing a flight-training curriculum for prospective pilots, whose recommended qualifications would include extensive rotor-wing experience and some fixed-wing experience, preferably with IFR capability. The company is also working with both the FAA and EASA to establish requirements for Tilt Rotor license requirements.

But Venanzi, a former F-104 fighter pilot in the Italian air force, noted that he only had about 100 hours of rotor time when he entered test pilot school, and that ease of flying was an aircraft design criteria for the 609. As an example, he noted that the controls that manage the tilt of the nacelles have detent stops, making it easy to make changes to nacelle configuration, unlike in the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor. (In related news, newly released Pentagon budget figures for fiscal 2012 indicate funding for the Boeing/Bell V-22 program will be cut from $2.6 billion for 35 V-22s to $1.91 billion for 21 aircraft.)

Venanzi said autorotation tests have been conducted at altitude, and that “it doesn’t take much altitude” to achieve a power-off full flair to a sink rate of zero fpm.

Two prototypes are flying. Prototype #3 is under assembly at the AW facility in Cascina Costa, Italy, with a fourth prototype to follow. The third prototype will be used for icing and high-and-hot trials, and will be outfitted with both anti-icing and deicing systems (for different parts of the aircraft).

The two aircraft flying have accumulated about 650 flight hours, and 85 percent of the 609’s flight envelope has been explored. LaBelle said the company has been developing its certification program with the FAA for several years, and FAA certification flight tests are scheduled to begin in 2013. FAA certification (with simultaneous EASA validation) is anticipated in the first half of 2016, with deliveries commencing that same year.

Though their partnership has been dissolved, Bell is continuing to assist in both design and flight testing. AWTR said it has 250 engineers dedicated to the program in Cascina Costa, and will soon have about 150 engineers at the Arlington facility. According to chief project engineer Silvano Scorbati, the two workforces are fully integrated and collaborate in real time. “We are able to work, instead of eight hours, 16 hours a day with four to five hours of overlap,” Scorbati said.

While declining to disclose development costs or the costs of ramping up for production, LaBelle said, “We’re not going to tell you specific numbers, but our message is [that] the company is committed to this project. We know what it’s going to take, and we’re going to execute and get it certified in the timeline we’ve laid out.”