HI Uplift: Leonardo’s AW609 TiltRotor enjoys a big year
“If you are in trouble anywhere in the world, an airplane can fly over and drop flowers, but a helicopter can land and save your life.” It’s an acerbic, but telling, observation from rotary and fixed wing aircraft pioneer Igor Sikorsky. What would he have made of the latest tiltrotor designs, such as the Leonardo AW609 TiltRotor?
Aiming to combine the speed, range and comfort of a fixed-wing aircraft with the convenience and flexibility of a helicopter, the AW609 TiltRotor is enjoying a big year. “The AW609, which is a hybrid between a real plane and a helicopter, is becoming more and more real,” Guiseppe Mignoli, regional sales director in Brazil for Leonardo told a recent Helicopter Investor Town Hall audience.
“The AW609 flight programme has now reached 1,900 flight hours and Leonardo Helicopters has sold its first AW609 TiltRotor to an unnamed private client,” he said. “The production line is ready to start working.”
Leonardo has also established a training academy in Philadelphia, US that is ready to offer training for both pilots and mechanics. “There’s a full flight simulator, so that gives you an idea of how much the company believes in the project,” said Mignoli. The latest achievements follow a series of 2023 milestones claimed for the AW609. Earlier this year the tiltrotor flew for the first time with staff from both FAA and European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
FAA pilots flew the AW609 in February, as part of the aircraft’s FAA pre-TIA (Type Inspection Authorisation) flight tests. “The machine flew with FAA pilots and was able to be given a standard certificate,” said Mignoli. “Now, there is the certification basis for this type of aircraft. Having the certification basis is the next step to be certified and to enter service.”
Of course, other tiltrotors are available. The $71.3m Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey is in service with various armed forces and the Bell V-280 Valor is under development.
But Leonardo Helicopters has an altogether more peaceful future planned for the AW609. The aircraft is said to be suited to a range of missions including VIP and executive transport, parapublic missions, medical and rescue services and energy services. “Flying at almost twice the speed of a conventional helicopter, the AW609 features a comfortable pressurised cabin designed for cruising efficiently at 25,000ft. Digital VFR/IFR avionics feature triple-redundant fly‑by‑wire controls to reduce pilot workload and maximise situational awareness,” according to the manufacturer.
The AW609 is said to be designed for flight into known icing conditions and meets the highest FAA requirements for both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters including single-engine operation and autorotation.
It is an impressive list of promises – one that has not escaped the attention of helicopter operators such as Bristow Group and Westar Aviation. Launch customer for the AW609 in the US, Bristow Group is working with Leonardo on planning operations, carrying out modifications and maintenance plus meeting regulatory requirements.
They are promises kept – at least for Bryan Willows, Bristow Group’s programme manager for advanced air mobility. After flying the AW609 last year, the US Marine Corps veteran and former MV-22 Osprey pilot said: “The AW609 is an important aircraft as Bristow helps advance vertical flight technology just like we have for the past 70 plus years.”
Also impressed is Westar Aviation, which pledged in May to bring Leonardo’s AW609 TiltRotor to Malaysia, marking the aircraft’s entry into the South-East Asia market. The offshore helicopter services company plans to commission one AW609 under a lease contract to carry out a range of roles and missions in the country.
Commenting in May, Westar’s group MD Tan Sri Syed Azman Syed Ibrahim said the aircraft will revolutionise the firm’s operational capabilities by providing a versatile platform to fulfil missions. “We are proud to be the pioneer in bringing the world’s first multirole tiltrotor to South-East Asia, and we look forward to demonstrating its exceptional capabilities to our present and potential clients,” said Ibrahim.
Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether the AW609 will jump the final hurdles to reach full FAA certification and entry into service this year or next. (Next year may be more likely given supply chain challenges). But let’s close on an optimistic note – sounded by Mignoli, of Leonardo Helicopters, at our latest Helicopter Investor Town Hall online meeting. (You can watch the Town Hall, sponsored by Aero Asset, which took place in Portuguese, with English subtitles free-of-charge here).
“It’s a very important step to have the first civilian tiltrotor in history,” said Mignoli. “We are very proud and happy with that achievement, working together with the Civil Aviation Authority of the USA to make this happen.”
How could Igor Sikorsky fail to be impressed?
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