08 Mar 2023
Pilots from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) flew the Leonardo AW609 tiltrotor on Feb. 22, representing the first time the regulator’s pilots had flown the type, as it moves towards the final stage of certification testing activity.
Leonardo said the AW609 will revolutionize air transport thanks to its rotorcraft-like versatility and airplane-like performance. Leonardo Photo
The long-awaited aircraft, which will become the first civil tiltrotor when certified, is undergoing its initial type certification with the U.S. regulator.
Gian Piero Cutillo, managing director of Leonardo’s helicopter division, told reporters at a briefing during HAI Heli-Expo 2023 that the recent flight, performed in AC4 — the production representative development aircraft — was a pre-TIA (type inspection authorization) activity.
“This completion is a key milestone as the program moves forward to the final stage of this certification process,” he said.
Cutillo said the manufacturer was working “collaboratively” with the FAA, whose role was “critical.”
“We are making really important progress,” said Cutillo. “We are together . . . defining the base of the certification. We still don’t have everything defined, but we are really getting close.”
He said “it’s difficult to say” whether certification could be achieved this year or next, “but we are getting close to that timeframe.”
Cutillo added the level of uncertainty was “due not only to the product . . . but the process of certification that we are validating together with the FAA.”
Matteo Ragazzi, diector of engineering and HDO, said the development of the type is over. “The aircraft is doing what it’s actually supposed to be doing as advertised,” he said. “The question is the process. You know that with the FAA the approach is pretty prudent and cautious.”
Launch customer Bristow was joined by a private VIP operator in Europe last year, with the latter signing a contract for four AW609s. Cutillo confirmed this remains the largest single order for the tiltrotor.
He said the manufacturer has a “defined plan” for the market for the tiltrotor, but that its entry into service will be “quite different” given the novelty of the product.
“We will do together with these couple of customers this kind of journey of the entry into service, but . . . we’re confident that we can get to the target that we planned many years ago,” said Cutillo.
He pointed to the choice of the Bell V280 Valor for the U.S. Army’s Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) program as evidence that there is a growing acceptance of the operational advantages offered by tiltrotor technology.
“Fast rotorcraft are becoming important, not only because of the progress that we are making with the AW609 and the Clean Sky 2 Next Generation Civil Tiltrotor [NGCTR], but also because of the first results in the framework of the future vertical lift initiatives,” he said.
“The selection of a tiltrotor in the FLRAA program is another testament of the recognized capability of these architectures. and studies launched at both the NATO and European level have also testified the growing interest in these new architectures.”
The NGCTR technology demonstrator, being developed through funding from the European Union’s Clean Sky 2 program, is progressing through assembly, Leonardo confirmed.
“It’s five technologies that we’re developing at the same time in one ship,” said Ragazzi. “We want to power up as as soon as possible.”
However, Ragazzi said the aircraft would likely not perform its first flight until 2024 due to delays in assembly caused by global supply chain challenges.