Faster, farther and further. This is the promise behind the AgustaWestland AW609, the world’s first-ever helicopter-plane hybrid. Just ask aviation experts like Gian Piero Cutillo, the managing director of Leonardo Helicopters, who said that the AW609 represents a technological breakthrough.
Of course, the helicopter-plane hybrid isn’t exactly a new idea. The United States military has flown the V-22 Osprey for several years but the civilian tilt-rotor aircraft will be the first of its kind.
Leonardo Helicopters, the Italian space giant behind the tilt-rotor aircraft’s conception and production, has said that it will start building its first production model starting in April 2019. The company has a factory in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the United States where AW609 will be manufactured.
If everything goes as planned, Leonardo Helicopters will secure the necessary Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification by December 2019. The AW609 can then enter into full civilian service by 2020.
The AW609 isn’t just a novelty and, in fact, many wealthy civilians have reportedly expressed their desire to own it. Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor and billionaire, is said to be one of them, and it isn’t surprising because of its numerous benefits, transportation-wise.
Early orders include three AW609s for the United Arab Emirates where the aircraft will be used for search-and-rescue operations. In the United States, Era Group has reportedly ordered two AW609s for delivery in 2020.
The AW609, which was previously known as the Bell/Agusta BA609, has a similar configuration as the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey. As a hybrid, it has vertical landing capability like a helicopter and the speed and range exceeding conventional helicopters.
According to Leonardo Helicopters, the AW609 can fly at speed of higher than 300 miles per hour. The hybrid aircraft doesn’t require airports since it can land on a helipad due to its helicopter-like hover capacity. Since it can fly faster and farther, it can cut transportation time significantly.
But it isn’t just executive and billionaires who have expressed serious interest in the AW609. The tilt-rotor aircraft has a wide range of civilian uses including emergency medical evacuations, organ donation transportation, and search-and-rescue operations. The company also says that it’s targeting offshore gas and oil operators.
For example, an organ donor transport provide can pick up a donor kidney, heart or liver from a hospital helipad, fly it quickly and directly to another hospital thousands of miles away, and avoid air and road traffic.
The AW609 can also be used in saving more lives during a search-and-rescue operation. With a low-flying search plane, rescuers can spot people on the ground but they have to wait until a helicopter can transport them to safety. But with a tilt-rotor aircraft, rescuers can fly longer distances, hover over uneven terrain, and hoist people up from the ground.
But while the AW609 has similarities in its exterior to the V-22 Osprey, these are two different aircrafts. There are few interior components that the two aircrafts share as well.
For one thing, the AW609 has a pressurized cabin whereas the V-22 doesn’t have it. The former can then fly at altitudes as high as 25,000 feet. At this height, the tilt-rotor aircraft and its passengers will be out of range of bad weather.
For another thing, the AW609 will be equipped with special fittings depending on its specific use. According to news reports, the search-and-rescue model will feature a hoist or basket.
The civilian-suitable AW609 seats two crew members and nine passengers. Each roto-tilt aircraft flies with turboprop propeller engines on each wing. Each of its engines also swivel up and down so the aircraft can hover, take off, cruise, and land depending on its position.
But the road to success for the AW609 hasn’t been easy. In fact, it has also been marred by tragedy, just as Pentagon’s V-22 Osprey was.
In October 30, 2015, an AW609 prototype TiltRotor crashed and killed both its pilots. The aircraft apparently was on fire before crashing in the fields near Santhia in northern Italy. The crash site was near Leonardo Helicopters’ headquarters in Cascina Costa.
For this reason, aviation industry regulators including the FAA will look closely at the AW609 to ensure that, indeed, it’s safe.
Since the AW609 is also the first civilian production aircraft of its kind, the regulators, manufacturers and stakeholders are entering unfamiliar regulatory territory. According to Cutillo, Leonardo Helicopters is partnering with the FAA in certifying the hybrid aircraft. In effect, the AW609 is a new helicopter and a turboprop, a hybrid that hasn’t been successfully done before.
The path toward certification, Cutillo added, won’t be easy because it’s a unique product. Both the FAA and Leonardo Helicopters are in meetings to overcome the challenges that will inevitably arise during the certification process.
Cutillo, however, has expressed fair confidence in the certification. He said that, “We are getting positive response numbers from the flight tests that we are doing. So we are making important and significant progress.”
The AW609 has a high price and we aren’t surprised that only billionaires can afford it. Cutillo says that its approximate price is $25 million – and it’s more than twice the price of a conventional helicopter – so it’s the Cadillac of helicopters.