AgustaWestland AW609 Moves Forward, May Be Built in Texas

 - January 1, 2013, 5:35 AM

AgustaWestland is giving serious consideration to building production models of the AW609 civil tiltrotor in the U.S., possibly in Texas, a senior executive told AIN last month. Robert LaBelle, managing director of the AgustaWestland TiltRotor Co., said that initially the aircraft will be built partially in Italy and the U.S. but that the ultimate decision on where to conduct final assembly will be “driven by the customer base.” Some 35 percent of that customer base, he noted, is predicted to be in the U.S.

AgustaWestland acquired the portion of the 609 program it did not already own from Bell in 2011, effectively dissolving the joint venture known as the Bell Agusta Aircraft Company. The 609 program is currently headquartered at a new AgustaWestland facility in Arlington, Texas, across the field from its previous home at Bell’s XworX, and the aircraft will be certified initially by the FAA in the U.S. under Parts 25, 29 and a new category called powered lift. “We selected this location because of the good weather that is conducive to flight-testing and the abundance of aerospace talent,” LaBelle said.

Approximately 120 employees are working on the program in Arlington and another 120 at AgustaWestland’s plant in Cascina Costa, Italy. Bell continues to provide temporary engineering support and will manufacture the rotor blades and yokes for the 609. Two prototype aircraft, one based in Arlington and the other at Cascina Costa, have accumulated 750 test hours since 2003 and flown 90 percent of the flight envelope. LaBelle said that more than 10 percent of the total flight-test hours have been flown in the last 11 months.

The Texas-based aircraft has been used for flight envelope expansion, ice accretion, testing flight controls and handling, external noise, performance, height-velocity and autorotation trials. The aircraft in Italy has been used for flight envelope expansion, load factor and vibration analysis, stall and high-frequency vibration tests, avionics development and kits and stress test of the flight guidance system.

Another two test aircraft are under construction in Italy and will join the test program this year and next. The third test aircraft is expected to conduct extensive icing tests in the U.S. Aircraft 4 will be fitted with a full production cockpit, including Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion touchscreen EDS avionics hardware, AW software used to command the aircraft’s fly-by-wire control system, upgraded Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6C-67A engines, and BAE Systems flight control computer. A 609 flight simulator will be installed at Arlington later this year.

Certification Planned for 2016

Most customers who signed with deposits since the program was announced in 1996 remain with it, LaBelle said, even though AW has yet to set a price for the 609 and likely will not do so until 2014. “We are nowhere near predicting the price,” he said. Orders have held steady at around 70 aircraft for more than a decade. “We haven’t acquired any significant new orders because we haven’t ramped up the marketing program yet,” LaBelle said.

AgustaWestland expects certification, initially for two-pilot operation, in 2016.

“This is a road that no one has driven on before,” said Roberto Garavaglia, AgustaWestland senior vice president of marketing, referring to the 609 certification program. Short-takeoff operations will be added to the certification basis to increase the aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight to 18,000 pounds from the vertical-takeoff limit of 16,800 pounds. “This is extra weight that could be used to increase available fuel and the range of the aircraft [now estimated at 700 nm after a vertical takeoff],” Garavaglia said. The base aircraft is expected to have a maximum forward speed of 275 knots, a ceiling of 25,000 feet, a hover out of ground effect of 5,000 feet, hover in ground effect of 10,000 feet and a useful load of 2,500 pounds.

AgustaWestland is currently promoting four interior configurations, including a standard two-pilot, nine-passenger layout; a six- to seven-passenger executive cabin; a two-litter medevac interior; a search-and-rescue design that includes hoist, basket, litter and four single seats; and a patrol/surveillance variant.

“It was never intended to be just a private aircraft,” Garavaglia said. “With the market the way it is today compared with the late 1990s, clearly the private market would be less active, not because of less interest in the aircraft, but because the economy has made the private sector less active.”

Garavaglia said AgustaWestland conducted a new market survey last year that estimates the market for the 609 at 700 aircraft over 20 years, including a strong parapublic component and a specialized niche serving the deepwater oil exploration market. Garavaglia said AgustaWestland could sell the 609 to military customers but is prohibited by its acquisition agreement with Bell from arming it. Bell and Boeing currently manufacture the larger V-22 Osprey tiltrotor for the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Air Force.

The Italian government remains interested in acquiring an unspecified number of 609s for coastal patrol, Garavaglia said. “Italy is a natural destination for the 609 because of its [coastal] characteristics. We are a frontier country in the Northern Mediterranean, and in the Southern Mediterranean there are all sorts of [security] issues to be dealt with. So several services in the Italian government are looking at the 609,” he said.