Leonardo is confident that the first flight of the production-representative fourth prototype AW609 (AC4) from Northeast Philadelphia Airport on December 23 represents the beginning of the home stretch for certification of the civilian tiltrotor. During that initial flight, some eight years after Leonardo assumed full ownership of the AW609 program, AC4 performed a 20-foot hover to enable data collection and photos, said test pilot Dan Wells. “We moved the controls in each axis and the response [was all good]. Then we did a pedal turn to the left, a pedal turn to the right, and then landed. All went very well.”
AC4 is equipped with a nine-passenger cabin and a newly configured and widened cabin door. After discussions with EMS and SAR operators, the company enlarged the entry door on the starboard side to 35 inches and modified it from a side-opening configuration to a vertical clamshell door with an electric hoist mounted to the upper section, if required for the SAR role. The increased width allows a stretcher to be brought into the cabin using a winch and then rotated lengthwise. The winch is planned to be capable of lifting a 600-pound load. To provide more headroom in the cabin, the company lowered the floor.
AC4's flight deck has been upgraded to production standard from the Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 that equips the prototypes to the three, 14-inch touchscreen Pro Line Fusion system. The Fusion touchscreens are of the resistive type, requiring a positive pressure to make selections, making it suitable for operation in turbulence and when in the hover, reducing the possibility of mis-selection. The system is also compatible with TCAS II, ADS-B, and the Rockwell Collins Multi-scan Threat Detection weather radar offered as a customer option.
"The new touch-screen cockpit layout really proved its value and the aircraft exceeded all of our expectations,” Wells said of AC4's first flight.
AC4 will be dedicated to avionics development and completing certification tasks. Bill Sunick Jr, Leonardo’s senior manager for AW609 marketing, declined to commit to a specific timeline for certification, but said, “We are getting closer and are excited about introducing the world’s first commercial tiltrotor,” adding that EASA certification “will follow approximately one year after the FAA.” When asked about the pace of the certification process, Sunick added that Leonardo is moving at a pace that the FAA felt comfortable with as the agency moved hand-in-hand with the process. Wells added, “There are no real high hurdles left. Now it is just a matter of accomplishing all the testing to meet the certification basis.” He went onto explain that, as of the end of September, aeroelastic survey testing—how the airframe responds to and damps out vibrations—was almost finished, as were engine-installation tests.
AC5, the first production AW609, is in final assembly at Philadelphia, and when AIN visited in September, the wing and fuselage had not yet been married. First flight is expected sometime during 2020. Sunick was uncertain if the aircraft would be delivered to launch customer Era Group as soon as possible following certification, or if the aircraft would be used initially as a demonstrator and sales tool.
Sunick also described a program to extend the range of the AW609, using external, underwing tanks. “Leonardo is still finalizing the design for the auxiliary fuel tanks [which are estimated to provide a combined total of 900 pounds of additional fuel] and as such, they won’t be available at the aircraft’s initial FAA certification.” The design work is being carried out at the Cascina Costa di Samarate facility in Italy.
Also in the summer of 2020, Leonardo intends to open a helicopter training academy in Philadelphia, with the first level D FFS AW609 simulator, which is being developed with CAE to be based alongside an AW169 simulator. Instructors for the AW609 have already been sourced from American military personnel with V-22 experience.