Distruptive Technology in Air Transportation: The AW609 Tiltrotor
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Distruptive Technology in Air Transportation: The AW609 Tiltrotor

Issue 22 - 2024
Distruptive Technology in Air Transportation: The AW609 Tiltrotor

The AW609 Tiltrotor is built on the technological know-how obtained under the experimental tiltrotor XV-15 Program of Bell/Boeing Partnership, which was formed in 1996 to develop a civil tiltrotor aircraft. Boeing left the XV-15 Program in March 1998 and Agusta (now Leonardo Helicopters) joined the Program as a partner in September 1998. Following Agusta's involvement in the Program, the development of the aircraft named BA609 and carried out by Bell/Agusta Aerospace Company (BAAC), a Bell-Agusta Joint Venture company. During the 2011 Paris Air Show, in June 2011 AgustaWestland stated that it will assume full ownership of the Program, and in November 2011, all ownership of BA609 Tiltrotor Program was acquired by AgustaWestland. After purchasing the rights from its partner Bell, BAAC was closed and development responsibility was transferred to AgustaWestland Tilt-Rotor Company (AWTRC) in Arlington, Texas and the name of the aircraft was changed to AW609.

Combining the VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) capability of a helicopter with the speed and range of a conventional fixed-wing aircraft a tiltrotor is an aircraft that generates lift and propulsion by way of one or more powered rotors mounted on rotating shafts or nacelles located at the wingtips.

The AW609 is powered by two modified Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6C-67A Turboshaft Engines, each drives a three-bladed powered rotor and generates 1.940shp for normal operation and 2.492shp for 30 seconds under one-engine-inoperative (OEI) conditions. In the event of a single engine failure, either engine can provide power to both powered rotors (proprotors) via a drive shaft. The AW609 is also able to carry out a successful and safe autorotational landing from cruising altitude. The 9- to 12-seat AW609 Tiltrotor is able to take-off and land vertically like a helicopter but achieving higher speeds, altitude and range than a conventional rotary-wing aircraft. The all-weather tiltrotor AW609 is designed to fly at 270kts and 25.000ft. With an 18.000lb maximum takeoff weight (MTOW), 6.000lb+ useful load, and 750nm range, the fly-by-wire AW609 is poised to change the face of civil aviation by giving operators a - huge speed and range advantage over a conventional helicopter. The AW609 can take off vertically at 16.800lb weight. At the 18.000lb MTOW, a running takeoff would be necessary with nacelles tilted at approximately 75 degree. In the full helicopter mode (nacelles vertical), the AW609 can hover out of ground effect (HOGE) at 6.000ft and in ground effect (HIGE) at 10.000ft, both under ISA conditions. The AW609’s advanced Night-Vision Goggle (NVG) compatible Collins Aerospace’s Pro Line Fusion System avionics (first utilized on AC4), with three 14-inches touchscreen displays, enable greater situational awareness, while the fully digital, triple redundant fly-by-wire flight control system reduces pilot workload. The Pro Line Fusion System is also compatible with TCAS II, ADS-B, and the Rockwell Collins Multi-Scan Threat Detection Weather Radar, offered as a customer option.

Within the scope of AW609 Tiltrotor Program, the world’s first multirole tiltrotor program designed to be civil certified, Leonardo Helicopters manufactured 4 AW609 prototypes for the flight and certification tests. The first prototype (Aircraft 1, N609TR, designated AC1), which made its first flight on March 6, 2003 at the Helicopter Flight Test Center at Arlington Municipal Airport, Texas, and is used for ground testing in Italy, which includes endurance tests of the AW609’s rotor and drive system. The AW609’s drive system and five gearboxes have completed 30-minute run-dry testing successfully. The second prototype (Aircraft 2, N609AG) had been used for the development of new installations. It crashed and burst into flames during a maximum dive-speed test on October 30, 2015, over northern Italy, killing test pilots Herb MORAN and Pietro VENANZI. Following the comprehensive investigation of the accident the National Agency for the Safety of Flight of Italy determined that the test aircraft, during trials dictated by the FAA certification process, achieved a maximum airspeed of 306 knots (AW609’s Vne [never exceed speed] is 283 knots) before uncontrollable oscillations (similar to Dutch roll) forced the proprotors to deform and strike the leading edges of the wings, severing fuel and hydraulic lines and culminating in an inflight breakup. The third prototype (Aircraft 3, N609PA) is conducting engine-handling performance and load-level surveys in Philadelphia, US. It was utilized during icing and high altitude-high temperature certification tests in Michigan. 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. The fourth prototype (Aircraft 4, N609PH), built in Philadelphia in production configuration, made its first flight on December 23, 2019. As the last prototype and equipped with production avionics, the AC4 is used for mechanical-systems and avionics testing in Italy and conducts customer demonstrations. The AC4 is equipped with a new landing gear 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. All of the prototypes are currently involved in the last stages of testing activities ahead of (Federal Aviation Administration) FAA certification. During our visit to Leonardo Helicopters’ Cascina Costa facility on January 30, 2024 we had the opportunity to see the AW609 prototypes AC1 (N609TR) and AC4 N609PH in the hangar. At the time of our visit, the N609PH prototype was being prepared for flight testing.  

Within the scope of AW609 Tiltrotor Program, the first production AW609 (Aircraft 5, N609LH), made its maiden flight on October 13, 2022 at Leonardo Helicopter’s final assembly line in Philadelphia, US. Retained by Leonardo the AC5 was initially conducted ground-based certification trials, including indirect effects of lightning strikes and high-intensity radiated fields testing. Then it joined the ongoing flight-test certification program in Philadelphia. Both AC4 and AC5 are equipped with production avionics and are being used for demonstrators in their prospective markets. The final assembly of the second production AW609 (Aircraft 6, N609LE), the first customer aircraft (for Bristow Group), was also completed in 2022 at the Philadelphia facility and it was registered on August 4, 2022. As of January 2024 the production configuration has been frozen, with the second production aircraft due to join the test program during 2024. The AW609 Tiltrotor will enter into service with AC6, which is the second production configuration aircraft.

In 2015, AgustaWestland reported that one of the AW609 prototypes flown 721 miles (626nm) from Yeovil in the UK to Milan, Italy in 2 hours and 18 minutes. In November 2021, Leonardo Helicopters flew AC4 (N609PH), the last prototype, but fully production representative, 2.550nm from its facility in Cascina Costa, Italy, to the Dubai Airshow, UAE. It was the AW609’s first appearance in the region. On May 11, 2022 the global leader in vertical lift solutions and launch customer for the AW609 Tiltrotor in the United States, Bristow Group, participated in a sixty-minute demonstration flight in Philadelphia marking an important milestone as Leonardo and Bristow collaborate to introduce the AW609 aircraft into service. In March 2022 the AW609 user base was further expanded with the addition of an undisclosed long-established European operator of Leonardo Helicopters’ who will aim to introduce 4 AW609 Tiltrotor to carry out a range of passenger transport missions supporting its point-to-point operations worldwide. The AW609 Medical Equipped Cabin (EMS interior) mock-up was displayed for the first time at Association of Air Medical Services, which took place in Tampa, Florida, from October 24 - 26, 2022. The AW609 Medical Equipped Cabin can board up to 5 medical crew members and one patient on a stretcher. In October 2022, AC3 (N609PA) made the AW609’s National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) debut in Orlando, Florida, with a full-scale VIP/Corporate cabin mock-up on exhibit. In VIP/Corporate configuration the AW609s will be fitted for between 5 to 7 passengers, with options for Wi-Fi, a forward lavatory with a hard door, and a small galley. The lavatory seat will not be certified for take-off and landing. On February 22, 2023 pilots from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) flew the AW609 Tiltrotor for the first time. Performed in AW609 AC4, the production representative development aircraft, the flight was a pre-TIA (Type Inspection Authorization) activity. With the completion of this flight successfully the AW609 Tiltrotor Program moved forward to the final stage of the FAA certification process. During March 16-17, 2023 pilots from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) flew for the first time the AW609. The flights took place in Cascina Costa, Italy were part of the first round of EASA’s familiarization activities for the AW609 Certification Program. In mid 2023, the FAA released the certification basis, another major step towards the type certificate. 

As of mid-January 2024, the AW609 Tiltrotor Program test fleet has accumulated some 1.900 flight hours in the US and Italy. The AW609 Tiltrotor entered the final stage of certification testing activities in February 2023 (with the flight of FAA pilots) and Leonardo Helicopters is hoping to complete all activities required for certification of its long-awaited AW609 Tiltrotor by early 2025.

According to Leonardo Helicopters the AW609 has a slightly higher procurement cost than a conventional helicopter in the same weight class, however, its operating cost will be lower than a helicopter in the same weight class, and it will also consume less fuel compared to a conventional helicopter in the flight to the same distance. The AW609 has strong interest around the world in all five mission sets: VIP, Corporate, Offshore, EMS, and SAR. Once certified, the AW609 Tiltrotor will be the first tiltrotor to enter commercial service. The aircraft can take off and land vertically, and carry up to 9 people in a pressurized cabin at twice the speed and range of a typical helicopter. Thanks to its rotorcraft-like versatility and airplane-like performance the AW609 will revolutionize air transport. 

Leonardo & Bell Signed an MoU to Bring Tiltrotor Technology into the European Market

During Heli-Expo 2024 on February 28, 2024 Bell Textron Inc., a Textron Inc. company, and Leonardo S.p.A., have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to evaluate cooperation opportunities in the tiltrotor technology domain. Sharing a multi-decade history of industrial cooperation on both traditional helicopters as well as tiltrotor technology collaboration Leonardo and Bell have teamed to explore cooperation in a bid to bring tiltrotor helicopter technology into the European market. “The cooperative effort will begin in earnest with the NATO Next Generation Rotorcraft Capability (NGRC) Concept Study #5, where Leonardo will take the lead on a tiltrotor architecture proposal with Bell in support,” they said. 

NATO’s NGRC Project aims to develop replacement solutions to fill capabilities of medium multi-role helicopters currently operated by Allies that will reach the end of their life in 2035 to 2040. Under that program, rotorcraft OEMs are being challenged to lever- age recent advances in technology, production methods, and operational concepts in developing these new aircraft. 

“This cooperative effort between Bell and Leonardo reflects our shared vision that next generation rotorcraft will be influenced by the speed, range and maneuverability only tiltrotor technology can deliver,” said Lisa ATHERTON, Bell President and CEO. “We are proud to deepen our relationship with Leonardo as we continue to explore emerging vertical lift programs in Europe and the United States.”

Gian Piero CUTILLO, Managing Director of Leonardo Helicopters, said “We’re thrilled to evaluate new joint efforts for the next generation of rotorcraft technologies, based on our solid and shared view of the unique advantages of tiltrotors. Leonardo has always firmly endorsed tiltrotor technologies to meet evolving rotorcraft requirements, even more so as new needs emerge in the market.” 

On February 29, 2024 touching upon Leonardo’s recent MoU with Bell to evaluate cooperation opportunities in the tiltrotor technology domain, Leonardo CEO and General Manager Roberto CINGOLANI pointed to the U.S. Army’s decision in Februray to cancel the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) Program and underlined that the U.S. Army wants speed, range, cabin pressurization, and vertical takeoff and lift parameters that are not available in traditional helicopters—but that lends itself to tiltrotor. “That, for us, was super good news” because it supports the decision to invest in the AW609 civil tiltrotor. “We are the only European company having a tiltrotor close to certification, primarily for civil application, that can be transformed for strategic applications.” He further stressed that Bell is the only other company with such technology and that the two companies share the original design of the AW609. “We developed two synergistic and complementary models (AW609 and V-280 Valor). They have a big heavy payload. We have the light payload.”

In February 2024, the U.S. Army has announced the cancellation of the Future Attack and Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) Program, which covers the procurement of a high-speed aircraft that would fill the armed scout role left vacant by the retired OH-58D Kiowa Warrior. Despite the dramatic upheaval impacting FARA, its sister Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) Program is continuing as planned, with the Bell V-280 Valor is set to inducted into service in 2030. Bell’s US Army’s FLRAA Program win in December 2022 with the V-280 Valor tiltrotor provides validation for Leonardo’s investment in the civilian AW609. Bell was initially awarded the FLRAA contract in December 2022, selected over the Sikorsky-Boeing Defiant X. However, the Sikorsky-Boeing team subsequently protested to overturn the decision, but this was denied by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in April 2023, giving Bell the green light to push on with the Program. The choice of the Bell V280 Valor for the U.S. Army’s Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) Program is a clear evidence that there is a growing acceptance of the operational advantages offered by tiltrotor technology. Indeed Leonardo sees also growing interest for the AW609 also in the government market, including the Italian one 

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