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First production AW609 prepares for first flight

By Glenn Sands | July 15, 2022

Estimated reading time 10 minutes, 37 seconds.

Work on the AW609 program is accelerating, as Leonardo prepares for certification of what will be the world’s first commercial tiltrotor aircraft.

Despite the challenges of pandemic-era work, major developments at the manufacturer’s U.S. headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, mean Leonardo is ready to meet the type’s long-awaited entry-into-service with a fully-developed training and production setup.

AC3 — the first prototype at Leonardo’s facility in North America — completes a demo flight. Leonardo Photo

The first production aircraft (AC5) recently finished final assembly at a new custom-built factory at the Philadelphia plant. “We’ve ‘turned rotors’ on it,” Bill Sunick, Leonardo’s Senior Marketing Manager for the AW609, told Vertical. “We’re currently doing some ground certification work, such as the indirect effects of lightning.”

The aircraft is also being prepared for its first flight. When that happens, the company will have four flying AW609s — two in Italy, and two in the U.S.

In November last year, Leonardo flew AC4 — the last prototype, but fully production representative — from its facility in Cascina Costa, Italy, to the Dubai Airshow, UAE. It was the AW609’s first appearance in the region.

“It was great to get the aircraft out there and showcase what we have been up to,” said Sunick. “That aircraft — AC4 — is now flying certification flights back in Italy, along with the prototype 609 [AC1].” The latter is focused on run-stand testing, which includes endurance tests of the type’s drive systems.

“We have certain inspection time overhauls to complete, and now we are getting the data that we need on run stand,” said Sunick.

The remaining prototype is in Philadelphia, and is focussed on handling quality tests, engine handling and flight performance.

“Now that we have explored the envelope and the testing, we are doing full certification [tests],” said Sunick. “We have FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] witnesses present and the documentation we’ve provided can validate that test.”

In terms of the approach to certification of a tiltrotor, Sunick said the basis is crafted from “regulatory language that is already out there.”

“You’re borrowing heavily from part 25 transport category fixed-wing, part 29 transport rotary-wing, and a little of part 23 [small airplanes] as well,” he said.

An AW609 sits outside the Casa Agusta rotorcraft terminal in Dubai. Leonardo Photo
An AW609 sits outside the Casa Agusta rotorcraft terminal in Dubai. Leonardo Photo

“Two of the most challenging phases of flight are the takeoffs and landings, so during this phase of the flight, the AW609 is essentially a helicopter — so we have borrowed heavily from that language during certification,” he continued. “During the flight, we’re more like a turboprop aircraft, so we’re using a lot of that information for certification. We’ve been working together with the FAA on this. It’s been tough, but we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

The company has also been developing the training infrastructure for the type, with a full flight AW609 simulator in place at Leonardo’s recently-opened U.S. training center in Philadelphia. The simulator has the capability to change cockpits between the AW609, AW139, and the AW169.

AW609 classrooms are nearby for ground school lessons, with one of the rooms home to a procedural trainer.

“It’s practically identical to the real cockpit, apart from a small panel of circuit breakers,” said Sunick.

“What this means is that if you’re teaching engine shutdown techniques in the 609, you can go through the bookwork in the classroom, then walk down the hall and climb into the procedural trainer. It’s an excellent way to get that muscle memory process going.”

Maintenance training is also catered for, with an extensive set of dummy components for students to work on. “It’s all about building that memory and confidence of working on the 609, so when they graduate and go to a real aircraft, the skills are all there,” said Sunick.

An Evolving Product

The AW609 began life as the Bell/Agusta BA609, with Agusta joining Bell in the development of a civil tiltrotor in 1998. The type first flew in 2003, with Leonardo (then called AgustaWestland) taking full ownership of the program in 2011.

During the type’s long development, its design has been refined numerous times.

“We changed what I call ‘the big components’ when you look at an aircraft, along with the avionics,” said Sunick. “With the engine, we chose a more powerful version of the [Pratt & Whitney Canada] PT6. With both engines running, it’s around 2,000 hp; if you lose an engine it can shift up to 2,500 hp. It’s one of the most powerful variants of the engine.”

This allowed Leonardo to increase the aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight, but also meant the company had to design a new landing gear configuration to handle the additional weight.

Potential customers also suggested a larger cabin door would be beneficial — particularly for search-and-rescue and emergency medical services operations.

“We widened the door by 10 percent and removed the hinge-style opening to that, which resembles a LearJet, with an upper and lower section,” said Sunick.

“The flight control system was improved, along with a new cockpit layout utilising the Collins Pro Line Fusion flight deck, similar to that found in King Airs.”

As AC4 was acquired during the buyout of Bell, AC5 is the first to be manufactured under Leonardo’s sole ownership.

Leonardo hasn’t disclosed the size of the order book for the AW609, but Bristow will be the launch customer. The operator’s first aircraft — AC6 — is already on the production line.

“For Bristow, it’s a case of looking at every flight they perform and re-evaluating it is utilizing the AW609’s capabilities,” said Sunick, who said the type will target corporate transport, EMS and SAR in addition to the offshore market.

“It’s now a case of taking the tiltrotor theory that we have been touting for many years and turning it into reality,” he said. “Missions will be done differently. . . . For example, there are business jet aircraft that are used in the SAR role, but all they can provide is the ‘search’ aspect. They have the speed and range and can locate those in distress, but they can’t make a rescue or pick-up. They would have to radio their colleagues in a far slower helicopter. The two platforms work together in this role.”

This could mean a reduction in rescue bases for a service such as the U.S. Coast Guard, he said. “Not all the bases would be needed due to the range the tiltrotor has. The mixed fleet of fixed and rotary-wing platforms could be replaced by one platform. Cost-wise, this would be a huge saving for a rescue service, reducing the crews required and their associated training.”

He added that the 609’s range would potentially enable it to fly directly to a specialist medical centre while returning from a rescue.

“Holistically the 609 completely changes the dynamics of the SAR mission,” said Sunick.

“It’s optimized for those missions, where you must go far, fast, and vertical.”

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