The end of the tunnel for the AW609
By François Blanc,
Copyright : Leonardo Helicopters
The AW609 is in its 13th year of development and the first convertible to have reached such a high stage of advancement is pursuing its initial goal, which is to obtain a civilian certification in less than two years from now. Italian company Leonardo-Finmeccanica sticking to its position since it first launched the AW609 programme in 2003 and still staunchly believes in the commercial potential of a concept in which all the other manufacturers have showed little interest.
THE CRASH OF AN EXPERIMENTAL BELL 525 AIRCRAFT IN THE US ON JULY 6 WILL HAVE MAYBE HAVE STRUCK A CHORDWITH INDUSTRY OBSERVERS, RECALLING A SIMILAR EVENT WHICH HAPPENED AROUND A YEAR AGO. ON OCTOBER 15 2015, NEAR TRONZANO VERCELLESE IN ITALY, THE CRASH OF A DEVICE ALSO UNDERGOING A SERIES OF TRIALS HAD ALREADY BROUGHT GRIEF TO FAMILY MEMBERS AND CAUGHT THE ATTENTION OF THE PUBLIC. THE ACCIDENT OCCURRED ON FINMECCANICA’S (EX -AUGUSTA WESTLAND) SECOND PROTOTYPE OF CIVILIAN CONVERTIBLE AW609 (A/C2) FROM THE COMPANY’S HELICOPTER UNIT, WHICH WAS THE FIRST AIRCRAFT OF THIS SORT TO AIM FOR A CIVILIAN CERTIFICATION. THE PROGRAMME HAS SINCE BEEN ONGOING AND THE COMPANY STILL HOPES TO OBTAIN AN AW609 TYPE CERTIFICATION BY 2018.
Era Group opts for the AW609
Five months after the accident which destroyed the A/C2, Finmeccanica’s helicopter unit – now known as Leonardo Helicopters – revealed that it has signed a memorandum of understanding with Era Group, one of the biggest helicopter operators in the world, based in Houston, Texas. According to the MOU, both parties agreed to jointly develop a version of the AW609 specially designed and fitted out for EMS (Emergency Medical Service) missions. The announcement was an opportunity for the Italian company to remind us that around 60 convertibles worldwide have already been ordered and that the aircraft is about to revolutionise vertical flying in the civilian market – a marketing formula that Finmeccanica has been using since the launch of the programme as far back as 2003. Two months later, on May 4 2016 to be precise, Leonardo Helicopters announced that the company’s third prototype had just finished its ground trials “with all engines fired up and all systems go” on the Cascina Corta site in Italy. An announcement meant to signify to all those eagerly listening that the trial programme of the 609 type had started again with the aim of getting FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) certification before getting EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) certification. Leonardo Helicopters also mentioned in passing that the third prototype would undertake trials in freezing conditions and thereby demonstrate, if needs be, that its portfolio of missions could go much further than anything else ever offered by any civilian aircraft, in the area of vertical flying.
A first American AW609
Latest event in an already very busy year: in August 2016, the first AW609 prototype (A/C1) landed in America. An event which shows the European company’s determination and ability to follow a carefully crafted plan. The aircraft came into the US through Arlington (Texas) and was then flown to Philadelphia, on the manufacturer’s site, after a short night stopover in Huntsville (Alabama). “The involvement of the Philadelphia site in the AW609 programme represents the anticipated progression towards assembly and certification with the FAA as the certification authority”, say sources at Leonardo, adding that “facilities in Italy, UK and Poland continue to play critical productions roles.” The A/C1 enables the manufacturer to continue with its US-based trials, in the main target market for the convertible while the above mentioned A/C3 should be picking up where the A/C1 left off, as the latter relocates to Italy. Finally, if all goes according to plan, a fourth prototype will be assembled in Philadelphia. It will become part of the convertible prototype fleet during 2017 and will enable Leonardo to put a finishing touch to its tests to obtain certification by the US authorities. The peculiar case of the AW609 in the history of aviation makes it worthy of our interest. The accident in October 2015 is a reminder that the development and fine tuning of such complex aircraft – which we often describe nowadays as the maturing phase – is far from obvious. It also reminds us that test crews often put their lives on the line; and that despite actual means of simulation and calculation, the opening of a flight test programme (which measures the overall technical capability of an aircraft while flying as well as what it is allowed to do for its secure use) remains a very demanding exercise. Historians will remember that initially Leonardo Helicopters and Bell Helicopter had decided to jointly develop a convertible for the civilian market, called the BA609. But Bell had back tracked, despite having already experienced similar challenges with the development programme of the V-22, a convertible for military use, leaving the Italian and British company Agusta-Westland to courageously pursue the project on its own. Bell justified its decision by pointing to the lack of demand in the civilian market for a medium class convertible. Leonardo Helicopters, on the other hand, continued to believe that there was a market for the aircraft and that its future would be bright. As the coming decade comes to a close, we will hopefully be able to see which one of the two was right.