AW609 production at the Leonardo Helicopters plant in Philadelphia. (Leonardo Photo)
PHILADELPHIA — Leonardo Helicopters is barreling full-tilt into flight testing of the AW609 in preparation for certification in Europe and the U.S. this year, but weather delays and a monthlong U.S. federal government shutdown have presented difficulties.
The final prototype 609 tiltrotor is on the company’s assembly line here, where it also builds the AW139 — and the version of that helicopter that will replace the U.S. Air Force’s UH-1 Huey nuclear missile field patrol aircraft —and will build the TH-119 that is in the running to become the Navy’s next training helicopter.
That prototype improves upon preceding airframes with design changes like a larger side door, beefier landing gear to support a higher takeoff weight and Collins Pro Line Fusion digital glass cockpit, according to Bill Sunick, head of tiltrotor marketing at Leonardo Helicopters.
“Folks might know the 609 and say ‘Yeah, it’s been around for a while,’ but I’ll tell you, when we took ownership of the program in late ’11, early 2012, what we also did was do a lot of critical thinking about where the aircraft was in its maturation and development and a lot of emerging technologies and systems,” he said. “That’s when we embarked upon a whole other development program for this aircraft.”
The three 609 aircraft at the Philadelphia facility will undergo engine calibration test, avionics system testing and the “workhorse” instrumented flight test aircraft will fly this summer while another prototype in Italy performs low-level survey flights for EASA certification, Sunick said during a recent tour of the factory floor.
“These are all points we’ve done before, it’s just a matter now that it counts for cert credit,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of flying ahead of us. We wake up every morning and do our good-weather dance and see what happens.”
Inclement weather and the 2018 government shutdown “didn’t help things” because FAA officials were unable to work while the U.S. federal agencies were unfunded. Still, flight testing is set to resume and the company is pushing to make the 609 a state-of-the art aircraft when it enters service. Continual design improvements include the 10-percent larger door, which was a concession to potential search-and-rescue and EMS customers that want to be able to fit litters more easily into the pressurized cabin, Sunick said.
“This is a significantly different aircraft not only as far as all the systems on board, but really pushing the envelope as far as available technologies and getting all that customer feedback,” he added.
Leonardo has boosted the aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight by using lighter materials to construct the airframe. The aircraft has more powerful Pratt & Whitney PT6 engines — each with about 2,000 shp — and a beefed-up landing gear to support that increased load.
“The configuration is no different from a large medium twin like our 139,” he said.
There are five total gearboxes with two in each nacelle and one centrally located between the wings that “plays referee with any slight power differences you have between the engines.” Both rotors will continue to turn on a single engine, with power transferred across the wing by drive shaft. If one engine is lost, the operational engine will kick up to about 2,500 shp to compensate.
With a pressurized cabin, the 609 is designed to cruise at 20,000 to 25,000 feet, far above the cruise altitude for a traditional helicopter.
“You’re going above weather. You’re going above obstacles. There’s a lot smoother air up there,” he said. “You’re also getting the benefit of airspeed at altitude.”
The program is growing momentum at the Philadelphia facility and now includes a whole building wing full of developmental engineers at its Philadelphia facility supporting the 609 program.
“It’s a huge increase in scope of work for this facility,” Sunick said. “From its humble beginnings as a repair station — parts and what not — to actually having developmental engineering, experimental flight test, and production of the 609, and we’ll have delivery and training.”
“We’re really, really excited now that the momentum is increasing on the program here,” he added.