Leonardo prepares for production, training and support of the AW609

Avatar for Brian Garrett-GlaserBy Brian Garrett-Glaser | April 8, 2021

Estimated reading time 8 minutes, 32 seconds.

Photos from Leonardo

Leonardo continues to make preparations for the commercialization of the world’s first civil tiltrotor aircraft, now approaching type certification almost two decades after its first flight. 

With the first two production AW609 aircraft under assembly, Leonardo says it remains “laser focused” on bringing the civil tilt rotor to market. Leonardo Photo

At the company’s North American headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the stage is being set for production, training, and support of the AW609. Leonardo’s new training center, an $80 million investment, will open its doors to the public this month with Level D full flight simulators for the AW139, 169, and 609, the last of which will begin certification at the end of the summer. 

The facility, modeled after Leonardo’s training academy in Sesto Calende, Italy, received its Part 142 certification from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in mid-February. Co-located with the company’s engineering, support, and manufacturing teams for numerous aircraft models, the new academy will soon have a maintenance training device for the 609 as well. 

The AW609 project has been instrumental in establishing the Philadelphia branch as a leading engineering presence within the company. Leonardo Photo

“It’s critical that we’re on a single campus, close to where the aircraft are being produced, close to engineering, close to the entire support stream from sales through marketing all the way into the commitments and contracting,” said Terry Eichman, head of training operations for Leonardo’s business in the U.S. 

Leonardo also acquired an additional hangar just across the street from its main production facilities — a building the company has been eyeing for over a decade — to separate 609 production from the 119 and 139, both of which are ramping up due to successful bids for military contracts with the U.S. Air Force and Navy. Moving 609 production into the new hangar will allow for work on four or five of the winged aircraft at a time. 

For Bill Hunt, CEO of Leonardo in Philadelphia, the 609 project has been instrumental in establishing the Philadelphia branch as a leading engineering presence within the company. 

“We were able to convince the parent company that as we’re moving from a flight test program into final development and a production program, what better place to put the 609 than here in our active production lines,” Hunt told Vertical during a site visit in February. “That put us on the map as an engineering hub within the company.” 

At its peak, the Philadelphia facility had 85 engineers working on the 609 certification program, according to Hunt, which raised the level of expertise on-site and helped Leonardo recruit against Boeing, Sikorsky, Lockheed Martin, and other high-tech companies with a major presence nearby. 

“We’re now transitioning into that production program, and that’s what you see on the floor today. Aircraft 5 and 6 are out there, we’re starting to build fully production-representative aircraft,” Hunt said. “Aircraft 5 will be used to do certification flights with the FAA, but beyond that it’s already in production configuration, which is the most important part for us of transitioning between developmental, all the phases you go through . . . to when you believe you’ve got a product you can finally put in customers’ hands.” 

The first customer is still slated to be Bristow (previously Era Group), which had intended to take delivery of two AW609s in 2020 to perform a variety of missions including offshore/utility, VIP transport, emergency medical services, and search-and-rescue. 

Leonardo is seeing growing interest in the AW609 for government and police missions. Leonardo Photo

“The great news about [Bristow as the launch customer] is we know they’re going to use the aircraft, and the one thing you want with a new aircraft is somebody to fly it all the time,” Hunt said. “You also want a customer that’s going to proactive with you in reporting issues so that you can address them, and we’re confident based on our relationship with them that all that is going to happen.” 

Hunt, who was the composite expert on the 609 program at Boeing when it was a Bell-Boeing project, told Vertical the customer base for the tiltrotor has changed over time — from being able to land on pads and islands without airport landing space, to oil-and-gas missions and police forces who want to be able to react more rapidly — but interest in the aircraft has remained constant. 

“We definitely see this morphing, but we see the customer expectations of the aircraft growing and growing in terms of the ability for it to do some things that they can’t do today,” Hunt said. “I won’t get into the details, but we see some specific non-military opportunities on the defense side of the market as well.”

The next major investment for Leonardo in the Americas will be in Florida — a 100,000-square-foot space directly across from NAS Whiting Field primarily to support the U.S. Navy’s introduction of the AW119 as its new rotary-wing trainer, the TH-73.  

That facility, too, is intended to support future 609 operations in the region. 

“We’ve looked at making sure that the 609 can have a localized maintenance center down there as well, because [Bristow] is going to be flying the aircraft, so we need to make sure that we at least have support capability down there,” Hunt added. 

While Leonardo declined to comment on the expected timeline for certification of the 609, a spokesperson told Vertical the company sees the aircraft operational in about two years.

“As extensively illustrated, we’ve already entered the industrialization phase (first two production aircraft under assembly, comprehensive customer support and training packages available in Philadelphia, new building for the final mass production), so we’re not merely stuck in a developmental phase and we remain laser-focused on entering the market.”

Notice a spelling mistake or typo?

Click on the button below to send an email to our team and we will get to it as soon as possible.

Report an error or typo

Have a story idea you would like to suggest?

Click on the button below to send an email to our team and we will get to it as soon as possible.

Suggest a story

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *