AgustaWestland announced last night that the AW609 civil tiltrotor will be manufactured at its plant in Philadelphia, Pa. and that most flight test activity will be moving to the U.S. AgustaWestland also revealed significant payload and range improvements for the 609 that could potentially give it an mtow equal to or in excess of 17,500 pounds in STOL or running takeoffs and a standard maximum range without reserves of 750 nm or 1,100 nm with auxiliary fuel tanks. Maximum cruise speed will remain 275 knots at 25,000 feet.
Program manager Clive Scott said he expects the AW609 to be priced comparable to a conventional super-medium helicopter when customer deliveries begin in 2018 after anticipated FAA certification in late 2017. Scott expects the price to be announced by year’s end, and he added that a speculated price of $24 million “was not far off.” AgustaWestland is expected to announce a major offshore energy customer for the AW609 at 10:45 a.m. today, at an event at the company’s booth.
Scott said that AgustaWestland had made substantial progress since buying out Bell Helicopter’s share of the program in 2011 and becoming the official type certificate applicant in 2012, with significant systems changes, airframe improvements and overall aircraft optimizations. The two flying prototypes–one in Texas and the other in Italy–together have accumulated more than 1,000 flight test hours, 600 of those in the last three years, about half of the estimated 2,000 hours required for certification, Scott said. That includes completing the flight envelope expansion and autorotation testing in 2014.
Over the course of 10 flight hours AW609 test aircraft made more than 79 power-off conversions from airplane to helicopter mode. AgustaWestland said the tests covered the full windmilling and autorotation envelope and that “the performance of the aircraft exceeded expected characteristics seen during [flight] preparation in the engineering simulator.” The company characterized aircraft handling during autorotation as “benign.” The Society of Experimental Test Pilots awarded AW609 pilots Dan Wells, Paul Edwards and Pietro Venanzi, the prestigious 2014 Iven C. Kincheloe award for their roles in those autorotation tests.
Two more test aircraft are scheduled to join the program and will be based in Philadelphia. Aircraft 3 is currently being assembled at AgustaWestland’s plant in Vergiate, Italy and should fly there in late spring before being shipped to Philadelphia where it will be based for a variety of testing, including critical icing trials at the end of this year. Aircraft 4 will be assembled in Philadelphia and used for flight testing as well as industrialization purposes. Scott expects Aircraft 4 to be fully conforming and fitted with all systems identical to a production model. He said the fuselage for Aircraft 4 was already “on its way” to Philadelphia and that assembly of the entire aircraft likely would begin there late this year.
AgustaWestland Philadelphia president Bill Hunt said that the assembly of Aircraft 4 would be performed is a segregated part of the plant and that two to three customer aircraft will be assembled there beginning in 2017 as part of a gradual production ramp-up. Once production matures Hunt said he expects a second AW609 assembly line to be established in Italy. AgustaWestland Philadelphia currently assembles the AW139 medium twin and the AW119KXe single and soon will begin production of the new AW169 twin. Hunt said that a large part of the AW609 engineering staff, currently working at AgustaWestland’s Arlington, Texas facility, will move to Philadelphia over the next year as more, but not all, of the flight test program gravitates there. Philadelphia also will have primary responsibility for AW609 product support.
Changes and Updates
Scott enumerated recent changes to the AW609. On Aircraft 2 in Italy these include changes to the air data computers and inertial reference platforms, an updated version of the fly-by-wire software, an upgraded flight control system, an automatic test system and a new pitot-static system, which now uses the same system installed on the AW139 medium twin.
Meanwhile both Aircraft 1, based at AgustaWestland’s Arlington facility, and Aircraft 2 have been flying Category A takeoff and rejected takeoff profiles that are producing better-than-expected performance numbers, Scott said. Overall performance is better due to greater-than-expected benefits from ground effect, recent aerodynamic improvements that reduced weight and cut drag by 10 percent, the ability of the AW609 to slow itself on one engine and the robustness of the landing gear. “We can put the proprotors in super-droop and slow the aircraft down very quickly,” Scott said.
The airframe improvements came in part after delaying the program for vendor re-selection in 2013 on certain components and some aircraft redesign, Scott said. “We were unhappy with some components in terms of performance, weight or cost. So for the last three years we have been working hard to ensure that the aircraft is not only technically acceptable but financially acceptable to the market in terms of acquisition and operating costs. We have significantly reduced the manufacturing cost of the aircraft, by more than 10 percent.”
Part of this activity involved the redesign of the main cabin door. The new door is a two-piece clamshell design with an integrated step that is 35 inches wide and lighter than the one-piece door it replaces. Scott said this will allow the AW609 to be manufactured with the same door for all missions–SAR, EMS and VIP transport–and this is particularly practical in SAR configuration with a hoist. This practicality can be observed first-hand at Heli-Expo, as AgustaWestland has two AW609 mockups at the show, one in SAR and the other in executive/VIP configuration.
Scott said that 2015 is a big year for the AW609 program because “certification flight testing begins now in earnest” as well as other milestones including fuselage fatigue testing. “We’ve done all the development testing and all of the autorotation and performance work. Now is the time to knuckle down with the FAA” for flight testing and demonstrating other items such as the cockpit man-machine interface.
Scott noted that most vendors for the program, including Rockwell Collins for the Pro Line Fusion-based avionics, BAE for the flight control systems and Pratt & Whitney Canada for the PT6C-67A engines, already have been announced and that a few more announcements will be forthcoming for items including landing gear and the environmental control system.