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Thursday, March 1, 2012

AgustaWestland AW609 Gets Back on Track (Again)

By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor

AgustaWestland’s AW609 during a Feb. 11 demo from its new facility in Arlington, Texas. Photo by Ernie Stephens

As the biting sub-zero wind blew across Arlington Airport Municipal, the gathered members of the press waited for the AW609 to take off and begin its pre-Heli-Expo demonstration flight. The occasion centered around AgustaWestland’s invite to the press to visit its new facility at Arlington, the location of the AgustaWestland Tiltrotor Company. 

This is where AgustaWestland is going to continue with the certification process, taking over from Bell Helicopter. The agreement for AgustaWestland to become the sole owner of the 609 program became effective on Nov. 15, 2011, although as Robert LaBelle, management director, stated there will still be up to 100 Bell employees involved (including test pilots) on a subcontractor basis.

The plan is to gain FAA certification by the first half of 2016 followed by EASA validation in Europe. “Customer deliveries will begin soon after,” said LaBelle. Surprisingly, the two test aircraft have only flown 630 hours since they were built. LaBelle says that the program is now to push through to certification with a budget that will not be cut. Another two test aircraft will join the second flying AW609 in Cascina Costa, Italy, the third from 2013. LaBelle said that the company currently expected a production run of between 450 to 500 aircraft.

There are still 40 customers waiting for their tiltrotors, with 70 aircraft in the order books. The actual price per aircraft is going to be released, according the AgustaWestland, around two years before production begins.

Vertical takeoff weight is still set at 16,800 lbs., although the company is looking into trying to increase that for short takeoff/landing missions. The range is 700 nm at a maximum speed of 275 knots. Fifteen percent of the flight envelope remains to be tested as well as deicing certification, which will be conducted on the third aircraft.

In the contractual hand-over AgustaWestland has secured the transfer of intellectual property rights, three prototype aircraft, existing certification credits, production tooling and test rigs.

In flight, the AW609 was relatively quiet, even in aircraft mode, and pleasing on the eye as it went through fly-bys, high performance turns and passes and other maneuvers with the nacelles at 50 degrees. The ‘elephant in the room’ as far as the future sales of the AW609 are concerned is that the first flight of the Bell-Agusta 609 occurred on March 7, 2003, nearly nine years ago. Its predecessor, the Bell XV-15, first flew on May 3, 1977. And now at best customer deliveries will begin in 2016. There is little doubt that AgustaWestland’s commitment is genuine in putting the weight of the company—and its reputation—behind finally certifying the AW609. But at what cost to the customer per aircraft—and what will Eurocopter’s X3 and Sikorsky’s X-97 technology demonstrators feed into their product lines by that time? 

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