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AW609 (@ Leonardo Helicopters)

Leonardo AW609: we talked about the tiltrotor with William Sunick Leonardo Helicopters AW609 Marketing Manager

The news of the arrival in Cascina Costa of one of the two AW 609 prototypes in the final production configuration is on 20 April 2021. Arrived from the United States for a series of tests, the AW609 is the first multi-role tiltrotor for which civil certification is underway, intended in particular for VIP customers, offshore oil and gas operators, rescue, patrol and other public utility tasks.

With its first flight back in 2003, this aircraft is close to being marketed with the customer Bristow Helicopters and also with government agencies that have already shown their interest. This aircraft brings with it a considerable flexibility of use, such as the speed of a traditional aircraft combined with the possibility of using confined spaces such as a helicopter. But what do we know about the AW609?

We asked Leonardo Helicopters to talk about this aircraft and give us some previews. William Sunick, AW609 Marketing Manager of Leonardo Elicotteri, talks about it with us.

Bill, thank you for giving us this interview

Aviation Report / Emanuele Ferretti: Where are you with the AW609 development?

Leonardo / Bill Sunick: Over the last two years we’ve moved from pure development and testing to actual industrialization with the first two production aircraft on the final assembly line (and the first of these two expected to be completed later this year) and the introduction of a full training syllabus and customer support services at our facility in Philadelphia. A new hangar has been recently acquired and will be used to optimize AW609 final assembly. Indeed the AW609 is a real product, soon entering the market.

Aviation Report / Emanuele Ferretti: Considering the maturity achieved by tiltrotor technology, why did it take so long for the AW609 programme to get to that level of maturity?

Leonardo / Bill Sunick: The AW609 is the world’s first tiltrotor subject to a civil certification procedure. As such, it requires the introduction of a number of specific features to meet the most stringent safety and operational standards set by the relevant authority (US FAA). Also, the FAA needs to develop them from scratch and so introducing regulations for an all new category (called ‘power-lift’) takes time but we’re now very close to the end of the tunnel. The AW609 also introduces modern technologies compared to previous designs and will meet the latest standards in terms of flight and navigation similar to those of the most advanced helicopter and airplane models available today.

Aviation Report / Emanuele Ferretti: When do you expect certification?

Leonardo / Bill Sunick: We won’t speculate about a precise date or period, considering its certification is not just the result of an industrial effort but includes a number of factors – regulations in particular – not just under the OEM’s management or responsibility. However we expect to see it performing its initial missions in the not so distant future.

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Aviation Report / Emanuele Ferretti: Which are the main characteristics, performance and technologies of the aircraft and it specific features which make it special?

Leonardo / Bill Sunick: The AW609 is an 8 ton MGW multirole tiltrotor capable of transporting 9+2 persons. It features the latest generation avionics with a touch screen cockpit, triple-redundant FBW and can fly up to 500 km/h at nearly 8000 m altitude and with a maximum range (including auxiliary fuel tanks) of approximately 2000 km. Among its key features, it has a full ice protection system and a pressurized cabin.  In the unlikely case of an engine failure, the interconnection of the AW609’s transmissions allows one single engine to immediately transfer power to both proprotors to enable continued flight.  While in the extreme case of a dual engine failure can be safely mitigated through autorotation, similar to what is currently used in helicopters.

Aviation Report / Emanuele Ferretti: Which are the main differences between tiltrotor and helicopter engines?

Leonardo / Bill Sunick: Typically, tiltrotor use turbine engines just like helicopters and turbopropos. In a tiltrotor like the AW609, we have a variant of the popular and reliable P&W PT6 which was modified to cope with the tilting effect considering the whole engine nacelle tilts with the proprotor.

Aviation Report / Emanuele Ferretti: The AW609 is considered as a multirole tiltrotor. Which are the specific missions and configurations?

Leonardo / Bill Sunick: Passenger transport, offshore transport, emergency medical service, search and rescue, patrol and special operations. The AW609 can perform all of them for civil and government operators.

Aviation Report / Emanuele Ferretti: There’s a lot of discussion in the industry about seeking for fuel consumption abatement and lower noise levels in helicopters: what are you doing to make the AW609 more compliant with these expectations?

Leonardo / Bill Sunick: The AW609 introduces a greener approach to vertical lift overall. While cruising, the AW609 will consume less fuel than a similar sized helicopter and as such will produce less emissions.  Also, in airplane mode flight it is extremely quiet. Every time we show it in public one of the reactions we receive from the audience is something like “I did not even realize it was coming until I saw it!”. Operationally it will spend most of the time in airplane mode flight, which equates to a lower noise level.

Aviation Report / Emanuele Ferretti: How will the AW609 change air transport?

Leonardo / Bill Sunick: Think about connecting the centres of two major cities in Europe without using major airports and avoiding motorway traffic. This changes point-to-point transportation giving more possibilities. Think about reducing the time for search and increasing the possibility of rescue during SAR missions: faster, farther, covering a wider area more quickly and then reaching people in distress and hoisting them, then back to the best base or hospital while performing first aid and patient stabilization enroute. Think about reaching remote areas such as small islands far from the mainland such as in Japan: there are cases when if you need hospitalization you need to go to the mainland which is 1000 km away, you don’t have an airport and you need to wait for a helicopter or a ship which could take up to 24 hours to get there one way: the AW609 can finally sort this out. These are just a few examples but tell a wonderful story of aviation technology supporting communities like never before.

Aviation Report / Emanuele Ferretti: Are you planning a military version in the future to counter competition from the US Osprey or the V-280?

Leonardo / Bill Sunick: The AW609, as a multirole tiltrotor set to have a civil certification, can perform various missions for government and military uses such as SAR, patrol, or special ops. This doesn’t mean we consider the V-22 and the V-280 competitors of the AW609. These are all different products in completely different weight and size categories, each of them with their own features and meeting specific military requirements. The AW609 will be unique in this regard.

Aviation Report / Emanuele Ferretti: Stories on the web say its cost is around 30 USD million. What can you tell us about?

Leonardo / Bill Sunick: We’ve not finalized a price tag yet but unit price will be somewhere between 20 and 30 USD million.

Aviation Report / Emanuele Ferretti: Will we ever see a remotely piloted tiltrotor?

Leonardo / Bill Sunick: Why not. As unmanned systems become more and more sophisticated, the use of less conventional architectures in addition to traditional airplane and helicopter architectures is a plausible possibility in the future for the industry. Think about manned-unmanned teaming with fast rotorcrafts, clearly industry will need to think about this sooner or later.

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Bill, on behalf of the Aviation Report editorial team and readers, thank you for your time.

Interview by: Emanuele “Mané” Ferretti
Images: Leonardo Helicopters