- Leonardo’s AW609 can take off and land like a helicopter and fly like an airplane.
- Tiltrotor technology has limited civilian use, but the military has long used similar aircraft.
- Downtown-to-downtown service is one of the potential uses for the aircraft type.
Vertical flight has historically been the domain of helicopters, offering users greater flexibility than traditional aircraft that require the use of airports. The downside to helicopters, however, is they often lack range, capacity, and speed compared to airplanes.
One company is looking to change that by combining the flexibility of a helicopter with the functionality of an airplane.
Aerospace giant Leonardo is pioneering the first commercial tiltrotor aircraft with the AW609. The premise is simple: it takes off and lands like a helicopter and flies like an airplane.
Take a closer look at the Leonardo AW609, which was on display at the Dubai Airshow 2021.
The AW609 was one of the most unique aircraft on display at the Dubai Airshow as the only civilian tiltrotor.
The US military has long enjoyed the benefits of tiltrotors, namely with the Bell/Boeing V-22 Osprey in service with the Marine Corps, Air Force, and Navy.
“In the history of aviation, you see technology migrate from the military side to the commercial side, and the tiltrotor is no different,” Bill Sunick Jr, Leonardo’s head of tiltrotor marketing, told Insider. And the public will finally get the chance to benefit from the capabilities of tiltrotors.
A maximum cruise speed of around 275 knots, or around 316 miles (509km) per hour, puts the AW609 in roughly the same league as a Beechcraft King Air or Pilatus PC-12. Most helicopters can’t compare to that type of speed.
But speed in the air is just one factor as owners will also experience unparalleled time savings on the ground by not having to travel to airports. Rather, the AW609 can use existing heliport infrastructure and helipads that are often far closer to business districts than airports.
New York-Washington, DC is a prime example of where the AW609 could be effective, according to Sunick. New York City’s Downtown Manhattan Heliport is steps away from Wall Street and less than an hour-long flight from Washington’s South Capitol Street Helipad.
“The most popular location from the Wall Street pad or even the 34th Street pad is Teterboro [Airport] via helicopter, and so then the next popular destination departing Teterboro is Washington, DC,” Sunick said of potential use cases for the AW609 in replacing short-haul flights between airports with tiltrotor flights between cities.
No longer will businesses or wealthy owners have to choose between taking the plane or taking the helicopter, or even taking the helicopter to the plane.
And also unlike a helicopter, the AW609 and its pressurized cabin can fly at altitudes as high as 25,000 feet (7,620.00m) well above adverse weather conditions closer to the ground. The display in Dubai did not have a completed interior.
Once in the air, it takes just 40 seconds for the AW609 to transition from helicopter to airplane.
The AW609’s maximum range of 1,000 nautical miles puts major cities as far as Miami, Chicago, and Atlanta well within reach from Manhattan under the right conditions.
And even with the slower speed of the tiltrotor compared to aircraft, the ease of access offered downtown heliports combined with the convenience of private aviation may just put the AW609 ahead of the competition.
“Your mission set needs to have the desire to want to go far, fast, and have a vertical part in that mission sometimes,” Sunick said.
For a look at a tiltrotor’s capabilities, potential customers can look no further than the V-22 Osprey. The military warbird has a proven track record of flying military troops and accompanying the president of the United States.
Bell/Boeing actually first launched the AW609 program, then known as the Bell/Boeing 609, as the commercial cousin to the Osprey.
A complete redevelopment of the AW609 took place when AugustaWestland, now a luxury helicopter division of Leonardo, gained full control of the program from Bell after Boeing exited the project.
Everything from the engines to the cockpit to the size of the cabin door was overhauled based on feedback from customers.
Two Pratt & Whitney PT6C-67A engines power the aircraft enabling a useful load of over 6,000 pounds (2,722kg).
The aircraft’s standard configuration calls for nine passengers but as many as 12 can be accommodated in the cabin.
Inside the aircraft resembles more of a helicopter cabin than it does a traditional private aircraft. Maneuvering in the cabin requires crouching and there isn’t much room to walk around, much like on a helicopter.
Leonardo also chose the Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion cockpit for the AW609, commonly found on general aviation aircraft.
Two pilots will be required to fly the aircraft when it’s first certified by Sunick envisions single-pilot operations eventually, as is the case with many private aircraft.
Bristow Helicopters is the launch customer for the AW609 with a focus on transporting workers to and from offshore oil rigs and search and rescue.
There’s no set timeline for certification as Leonardo is working with regulators including the Federal Aviation Administration to establish the rules for a powered lift aircraft such as the AW609.
“This has actually been a marriage between Leonardo and the FAA working hand in hand to help define these criteria,” Sunick said, adding that regulations governing fixed-wing aircraft, rotorcraft, and small airplanes will apply to the AW609.
But once certified, private aviation may be changed forever as the potential use cases for this aircraft are endless. Whether it be mini-airlines offering downtown-to-downtown service in the Northeast or the wealthy jet set wanting to fly straight from Wall Street to Miami.
“We should as consumers of aviation demand more and more from our platforms,” Sunick said. “I want to go faster, I want to go further, I want to vertical.”