The V-22 Osprey has dominated the rotary wing, vertical take-off market for years, but its only available to the military. Now, AgustaWestland is on pace to begin production of the AW609, the first civilian tilt-rotor, at its plant in Philadelphia while moving most of the flight test activity from Italy to the U.S.

The unique characteristics of the AW609 TiltRotor combine the benefits of a helicopter and a fixed-wing airplane into one aircraft. The AW609 will be able to take off and land vertically as well as fly above adverse weather conditions with up to nine people in a pressurized cabin at twice the speed and range typical of helicopters. It represents the next generation of aircraft transport for civil, government, and para-public roles.

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Combining turboprop performance with the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) flexibility of a helicopter, the 'TiltRotor' represents the future of vertical flight, pushing the envelope of what can be achieved with the platform.

Background

Originally labeled the, Bell/Agusta BA609, the design drew on experience gained from Bell's work on the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey. The BA609 prototype took its first test flight in 2003 in Arlington, TX and in 2005, the first conversion from helicopter to airplane mode while in flight took place.

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By 2009, Bell began dragging their feet while dissatisfied with commercial prospects with the civilian tilt-rotor program. AgustaWestland bought out Bell's share of the program to speed up development. By the end of 2011, the transfer of ownership was complete including full transfer of technologies shared with the V-22.

The two flying prototypes–one in Texas and the other in Italy–have accumulated nearly 1,200 flight test hours between them, 600 of those in the last three years, over half of the estimated 2,000 hours required for certification. That includes completing the flight envelope expansion and autorotation testing in 2014.

Most vendors for the program, including Rockwell Collins for the Pro Line Fusion-based avionics, BAE for the flight control systems, and Pratt & Whitney Canada for the PT6C-67A engines, have already been announced. A few more announcements will be forthcoming for items including landing gear and the environmental control system.

AgustaWestland Philadelphia, AgustaWestland's center of operations for production, sales, customer support and training across the Americas, operates out of a 275,000 square foot facility, on a 39-acre site at Northeast Philadelphia Airport in Pennsylvania. The facility also includes final assembly lines for the AW119Kx and AW139 helicopters, a parts supply depot for the Americas and a fully approved FAA and JAA repair station.

As announced in 2013, AgustaWestland Philadelphia will also serve as one of two worldwide production sites for the newest addition to the AW Family of products, the new-generation AW169. AgustaWestland Philadelphia also performs helicopter customization, has a delivery center for AW109 Power and GrandNew aircraft, and provides maintenance services for customer aircraft. Over 560 people are currently employed by AgustaWestland Philadelphia and this will increase as a result of this announcement and the expansion of other activities.

Production

The company has expanded the AW609 TiltRotor program to include the AgustaWestland Philadelphia facility through its designation as the first final assembly line for the only civil tilt-rotor in development to date. A second final assembly line is expected to be established at AgustaWestland's Vergiate facility in Italy at a later date.

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The involvement of AgustaWestland Philadelphia in the AW609 program represents the anticipated progression towards assembly and certification with the FAA as the main certification authority. The move signifies an expansion of the capabilities present at AgustaWestland Philadelphia, particularly in the engineering and supply chain functions.

AgustaWestland currently has two prototypes undergoing flight testing with a third in final assembly. The first prototype aircraft will continue flying at the AgustaWestland facility in Arlington, Texas in parallel with FAA Certification support work at AgustaWestland's Philadelphia facility. The fourth prototype will be assembled in Philadelphia in 2016.

Full integration of the AW609 program into AgustaWestland Philadelphia's operations is expected by third quarter 2015, and will include facility expansions as required to accommodate the AW609 TiltRotor engineering, certification, and aircraft assembly activities.

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The AW609 aircraft have so far logged nearly 1,200 hours, with achievements over the past year that include successful completion of envelope expansion, autorotation trials, and improvements in aerodynamics and aircraft systems. Nearly 60 aircraft have been ordered to date for a variety of roles and missions, including offshore transportation, EMS and patient transfer, search and rescue, VIP, and parapublic operations.

Improvements

AgustaWestland also revealed significant payload and range improvements for the 609 that could potentially give it a maximum takeoff weight equal to or in excess of 17,500 pounds in short takeoff and land (running takeoffs) and a standard maximum range up to 1,100 nautical miles with auxiliary fuel tanks. Maximum cruise speed will remain 275 knots at 25,000 feet.

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The Company has introduced several performance and product improvements for the AW609 TiltRotor to enhance the aircraft's capabilities. It has recently completed an extended technology development flight test program which has confirmed an increase in the maximum take-off weight up to 18,000 pounds thanks to engine upgrades, landing gear modifications and optimized flight control techniques. These test results validate a sizable increase in useful load that provides users with the capability to fly 500 nautical miles point-to-point with a full load of nine passengers in two hours.

To further enhance mission capabilities underwing auxiliary fuel tanks are being developed to increase range and endurance and ensure that the additional take-off performance may be built into a wide array of mission profiles. These will permit the aircraft to boost its maximum range to 1,100 nautical miles and allow users to transport six passengers over a range of 800 nautical miles in a little over three hours.

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The cabin door is also being enlarged on all variants to improve access, in particular for SAR and EMS operations, roles in which the AW609 TiltRotor can deliver dramatically increased capabilities for certain missions when compared to helicopters, due to its much higher cruise speed and longer range.

The cockpit of the AW609 will have a new fully integrated Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion flight deck, combined with upgraded flight computers and sensors to provide pilots with the very latest features to manage and monitor flight activities and make flying safer.

These improvements follow earlier envelope expansion test flying and aerodynamic changes that demonstrated best-in-class speed, range, and cruise altitude and delivered a 10 percent drag reduction.

Offshore Capabilities

AgustaWestland and Bristow have recently announced the signing of a platform development agreement for the AW609 TiltRotor program. On the occasion of the public premiere of a real AW609 aircraft at the US exhibition, featuring a dedicated Bristow/Eastern Airways paint scheme.

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Bristow Group Inc. is the leading provider of helicopter services to the worldwide offshore energy industry based on the number of aircraft operated. It's also one of two helicopter service providers to the offshore energy industry with global operations. The company has major transportation operations in the North Sea, Nigeria and the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, and in most of the other major offshore oil and gas producing regions of the world, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Russia and Trinidad.

The development agreement envisages AgustaWestland and Bristow working closely on a number of activities in support of AW609 program development. They'll address concepts around operations, regulations, maintenance, configuration optimization, as well as identifying possible areas of enhancement or modifications.

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Under the agreement, AgustaWestland and Bristow will work to support the development of oil and gas and search and rescue dedicated configurations and capabilities. The companies would provide contribution to flying activities towards aircraft maturity and to address commercial aspects for future AW609 acquisitions.

The signing of this agreement sets a major milestone for the development of the first commercial tiltrotor towards FAA certification, which is expected to be achieved in 2017. This exclusive agreement further strengthens the long established partnership between AgustaWestland and Bristow, a prime global operator of the AW139 and the AW189 covering offshore transport and Search and Rescue operational requirements. By joining forces through their respective expertise and know-how, AgustaWestland and Bristow are moving towards a marketing and operational preparation stage as the AW609 program enters its industrialization phase.

As demand for integrated point-to-point transportation grows, Bristow has made strategic investments in Airnorth and Eastern Airways, combining fixed wing and helicopter transportation into a one-stop solution for customers. The agreement to further develop the potential capabilities of the AW609 marks a significant step towards the production of one aircraft type that will provide an ideal transportation solution for offshore travel in the future.

Photos: AgustaWestland

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Chris is a pilot who loves airplanes and cars and his writing has been seen on Jalopnik. Contact him with questions or comments via twitter or email.