Leonardo's first production AW609 civil tiltoror, AC5, has joined the test fleet and will fly soon, after which it will join the ongoing flight-test certification program in Philadelphia, according to William Sunick, the company’s head of tiltrotor marketing. Rotors turned on AC5 in January and it has already been used for ground-based certification trials, including indirect effects of lightning strikes and high-intensity radiated fields testing. Components for AC5 were contributed “from across the Leonardo ecosystem,” including PZL-Świdnik in Poland and Leonardo UK, Sunick said.
The new aircraft will boost the test fleet to four—AC2 was lost in a fatal flight testing crash in Italy in 2015. AC1, which first flew in 2003, is being used for ground testing in Italy along with flying prototype AC4, which recently returned from a demonstration tour in Dubai and was self-deployed from Milan. AC6, the first customer aircraft (for Bristow Group), is one of three aircraft currently on the line at the AW609 production facility in Philadelphia.
Although production is "still ramping up," according to Sunick, he did not rule out multi-site production of the aircraft in the future if justified by market demand. He noted specific mission kits and capabilities, such as search-and-rescue (SAR) and flight into known icing, will be added following aircraft certification. “We have a good idea of what all our variants—SAR, VIP, corporate, EMS, utility, and parapublic—will look like as we have all those variants flying on our helicopters right now—so we have a pretty good idea of what customers would want and how to integrate it onto the aircraft. But right now we are focused on the aircraft itself and getting it certified,” he said. “These pieces of kit gear are nothing new.”
While the program is making steady progress, company officials declined to offer estimates on when the aircraft will achieve FAA certification. “We can’t give you a date for certain,” said Sunick, noting the AW609’s unique “powered lift, tiltrotor subset” certification criteria that borrow from FAR Part 29—which governs helicopters that weigh more than 7,000 pounds—and the Part 23 and 25 rules that apply to fixed-wing aircraft.
“But there is a lot of excitement here and we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “The flight envelope has been defined and right now we’re just checking the [certification] boxes.” That includes using AC1 on a ground stand to verify inspection intervals and mean time between overhauls, and AC3 for engine handling performance and load level surveys. Leonardo is also validating the 30-minute run-dry capability of the 609’s five gearboxes—a capability that is already found on its conventional helicopters.
While Leonardo has yet to initiate AW609 pilot and maintainer training, Sunick said the company has developed all necessary components, adding, “We feel pretty good about that.” Last year, Leonardo opened a new training academy on its Philadelphia campus for company aircraft including the AW609.
This facility includes classrooms, an AW609-specific procedure trainer, and a roll-on/ roll-off level-D flight simulator; developed in cooperation with its Rotorsim training joint venture with CAE. The simulator can be configured with either AW169 medium twin or AW609 cockpits. Leonardo has also acquired a variety of AW609 maintenance training tools, including nacelles, engines, and landing gear. “Obviously all that and the training syllabus needs to be reviewed by the FAA,” Sunick said, but he characterized its development as “methodical.”
According to Sunick, “several hundred” Leonardo employees—in Philadelphia and Italy—are working on the AW609 and “there is tremendous interest” within the company to join the effort on the groundbreaking aircraft. “There is a lot of excitement behind that. There’s not a lot of times when you are part of something new, something different, something revolutionary. People want to be a part of that.”