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Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Loyal Base

John Croft

Despite program delays and skepticism about the effects of the BA609's costs on potential markets, those with orders on the books say they're sticking with the civil tilt-rotor.

DESPITE YEARS OF BA609 PROGRAM SLIPS, AIR CENTER Helicopters in Fort Worth, Texas, is holding on tight to its two orders for the Bell/Agusta civil tilt-rotor. Air Center President and CEO Rod Tinney wishes he had them today. Tinney said the 275-kt., 750-nm. range hybrid would have been invaluable in Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts in which Air Center participated.

"If we had one now, it would be the perfect machine," said Tinney, largely because of the distances involved in reaching the devastated areas.

The rescue effort highlights one of the many applications of the BA609 that remain constant despite a delivery schedule that's been highly variable. Bell launched the program with Boeing as a partner in 1996, intending tobring the aircraft to market around 2003. In the interim, Boeing departed, Agusta joined in 1998 and the BA609's sister ship, the V-22, encountered more than its share of development problems. As a result, BA609 certification and first delivery slipped. The company is keeping tight lipped about the new schedule, though the industry expects a 2008 first arrival.

Like Tinney, customers appear unfazed by the delays. The partners claim orders of about 60, from a mix of corporate, offshore and government/utility customers. That is down from the 70 Bell reported in 2003 and the 80 it said were on the books in 2001. Still, Bell says the 60 orders sell out delivery slots for at least two years, assuming a two-a-month build rate. Industry analysts such as The Teal Group and Forecast International agree that there is a substantial market for the aircraft, though they disagree on whether it is largely a military/government or commercial one.

Customers that placed orders before 2000 will pay $10 million per aircraft, depending on configuration. Later orders carry a price to be set 25 months before delivery. Air Center's Tinney sees the potential for civilian use as well as for para-public work for the government. "We feel there is a tremendous amount of applications for the aircraft" based on its range and all-weather capability, he said. "We're not concerned about finding work for it." For Air Center, the applications may include passenger transportation to, from and between tropical islands that don't have airports. "We can canvass the entire Caribbean," he said. Air Center offers inter-island transporta and sightseeing in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. The company said it may use the tilt-rotor for corporate transport from Dallas/Fort Worth to Houston. "For anything within 500 mi., it can outrun a corporate jet or airliner," he said. "It will extend the workday for executives, saving them lots of time." Air Center specializes in charters, sightseeing and other for-hire services with three types of Bell aircraft from Fort Worth, Norfolk, Va. and the Virgin Islands.

In terms of operating costs, Tinney said he expects the per-mile cost to be comparable to that of the Bell 412, based on information provided by Bell/Agusta. According to Bell's figures for 2004, the per-flight-hour costs for the 412 were $870 assuming fuel at $2.25 a gallon. Dividing by an average speed of 135 mph, gives $6.50/mi.

Plans are to assemble the BA609 at Bell's facility in Texas and Agusta/Westland's facility in Italy. Fuji Heavy Industries is to supply the fuselage and empennage and Pratt & Whitney Canada will provide the two 1,940-shp. PT6C-67A engines.

The first BA609 made its initial flight in March 2003 after 40 hr. of restrained operations on an outdoor run stand that allowed for full-power rotation of the nacelles. After more than 14 hr. of hover and high-nacelle angle testing, including redline speed tests at nacelle angles of 90, 95 and 75 deg, sideward flight maneuvers to 35 kt. and measurements of fuselage and rotor damping characteristics, Bell put flight testing on hold until the V-22 program regained its footing this year.

Flight testing began again in June, first with another 40 hr. of restrained checks on the run stand, followed by a 1.3-hr. flight June 3. On July 22, the test pilots converted the tilt-rotor to airplane mode for the first time. The BA609 reached 190 kt. during the 2.2-hr. flight.

After envelope-expansion flight test of about 18 months, FAA certification tests will put the BA609 through its paces in terms of flying qualities, performance, load levels, avionics, system tests, cold weather operations and flight into known icing. EASA validation will follow.

Another prototype, the second of four flight test aircraft, is undergoing functional checkouts at AgustaWestland's assembly and testing facility near Cascina Costa, Italy. It is slated for first flight in the fourth quarter.

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