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Although Leonardo is unlikely to deliver its first AW609 before 2023, preparations for training the first generation of civil tiltrotor pilots are already ramping up. The company has a full flight simulator (FFS) in place at its part 142 training academy in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and is working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to achieve Level D certification. That will enable pilots to complete their full transition courses entirely in the sim, as is standard practice for airline pilots.
At HAI Heli-Expo 2022 in Dallas in March, Leonardo offered a preview of the AW609 pilot training experience with its Virtual Enhanced Training Device (VETD). This non-motion simulator is not a substitute for the FFS, but will be used in the transition course as a procedures trainer before students jump in the more sophisticated model. It should be particularly valuable as an introduction to the AW609’s integrated avionics, as it’s equipped with the same Collins Aerospace Pro Line Fusion system that will feature on the production aircraft.
According to AW609 instructor pilot Kevin Semler, while Leonardo is still working out the details of pilot certification with the FAA, the course should be equally accessible to helicopter and fixed-wing pilots. “We’re really focusing on the tiltrotor specifics,” said Semler, who gave me an hour-long demo in the VETD during Heli-Expo.
Leonardo, along with many developers of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, expects the FAA to eventually establish formal standards for training pilots in aircraft with novel configurations. In the meantime, Semler said, the company will likely use an exemption process for the first AW609 pilots who pass through its training academy, issuing them either a powered lift rating or a type rating on their existing airplane or rotorcraft certificate.
While the tiltrotor is in a category by itself, helicopter pilots should feel right at home in the fly-by-wire AW609. The pilot has a cyclic-style control between their legs, although this is called a “center stick” in the AW609. As Semler explained, this is because “it doesn’t always make cyclic inputs to the head: sometimes it’s controlling the flaperons, sometimes it’s controlling the elevator.” Similar to many helicopter cyclics, it has a force trim release button and a beep trim.
Unlike the Bell Boeing V-22 military tiltrotor, which has a “thrust control lever” similar to an airplane throttle, the AW609 has a collective-like control called a “power lever” that is used to increase or decrease power and thrust. A thumb wheel on the power lever controls the angle of the nacelles and thus the tilt of the two proprotors.
From 95 degrees (five degrees aft of vertical) to 75 degrees, the pilot can set the precise angle both in flight and on the ground, which “gives you a lot of ability to control closure rate and precision when doing low hover work,” Semler noted.
“We’ve been working with the FAA to get all the material ready . . . and we’ve gotten a lot of really good traction.”
For cruise flight, a further click of the thumb wheel transitions the nacelles automatically from 75 to 50 degrees, then from 50 degrees down to zero for airplane mode. One more click reduces the proprotor rpm (Nr) from 100 to 84 percent (moving the thumb wheel in the other direction reverses the process).
Finally, there are yaw pedals, which function similarly to the anti-torque pedals on a helicopter or the rudder pedals on an airplane, although the AW609 has neither an anti-torque rotor nor a rudder. In a hover, yaw is accomplished through differential longitudinal cyclic input, so that one proprotor tilts slightly forward and the other slightly aft to achieve the desired rotation around the vertical axis. In cruise flight, differential collective and flaperons are used for coordinated turns.
A different way of flying
For my own demonstration, Semler provided a comprehensive overview of the AW609’s capabilities, including Cat A takeoffs and one engine inoperative (OEI) procedures. But he said that pilots transitioning to the tiltrotor will likely spend their first few sessions in the full flight sim perfecting the basic approach and departure profiles. Unlike a conventional helicopter, which has a nose-low attitude while accelerating and a nose-high attitude while slowing down, the AW609 generally maintains a level pitch attitude as acceleration is controlled through the angle of the nacelles.
This does take some getting used to, as I noticed during my first approach to a hover, when I had to fight the tendency to pull the center stick back. “Helicopter pilots like to bring the nose up and slow like that, airplane pilots like to put the nose down and then do an airplane flare,” Semler pointed out. “We have to counter both of those and learn to fly a little bit differently.”
Although a level pitch attitude is normal on approach, it’s also possible to do a nose-low approach for better visibility when going into confined areas. That’s accomplished by setting full aft (95 degree) nacelle to counter the nose-low attitude. In either type of approach, glideslope is maintained with the power lever.
I actually got my first introduction to these tiltrotor basics back in 2013, when I had the chance to fly what was then AgustaWestland’s engineering simulator with AW609 test pilot Dan Wells. What was new for me this time around was the Pro Line Fusion glass cockpit, which also features on business jets such as the Bombardier Global 5000/6000 and Gulfstream G280.
Each pilot has a primary flight display that incorporates standard flight data plus a visual representation of nacelle angle. In the center of the instrument panel, a multi-function display provides access to a wealth of navigational and aircraft systems information, including depictions of the electrical system, hydraulics, and flight controls. The displays are touchscreens, but pilots can also interface with them using a dedicated joystick called a cursor control panel.
“It’s a very pilot-friendly cockpit,” Semler noted. However, it’s also so feature-rich that pilots who are new to the system will need plenty of time to learn all of its ins and outs. That’s where the VETD should shine, allowing pilots to get up to speed on the avionics during the two-week ground portion of the AW609 course before moving into the FFS.
Leonardo is still in the process of obtaining FAA approval for its course materials and curriculum, but Semler estimates that pilots will spend around 28 hours in the FFS, which Leonardo developed with its Rotorsim joint venture partner CAE. The first 12 hours in the sim will focus on visual maneuvering and emergency procedures, followed by around 14 hours of instrument training and a two- to three-hour checkride. Pilots will then receive a type rating in accordance with 14 Code of Federal Regulations 61.64, which will then require them to log 25 hours of flight time in the actual aircraft under the supervision of a fully qualified AW609 pilot.
Leonardo has yet to disclose the size of its AW609 order book, so it’s unclear how many civil tiltrotor pilots will be flowing through its Philadelphia training academy. Neither is it clear exactly when customer training will begin, since the company has declined to estimate a precise date for the aircraft’s long-delayed certification. But its aim is to ensure that when the AW609 goes online, its pilots do, too. “We’ve been working with the FAA to get all the material ready . . . and we’ve gotten a lot of really good traction,” Semler said.