AW609 production at the Leonardo Helicopters plant in Philadelphia. (Leonardo Photo)
As the launch customer for the Leonardo AW609 civil tiltrotor, Era Group expects it will begin putting the aircraft through its paces late next year, but in the meantime is finalizing the roles and missions for the 609 under a Memorandum of Understanding the company has with Leonardo.
The mix of such missions includes search and rescue, air ambulance, offshore oil-and-gas operations, VIP transport, and utility work.
Last month, Paul White, Era's senior vice president of commercial operations, visited Leonardo's AW609 simulator in Italy. A helicopter pilot with experience in a variety of aircraft, such as Leonardo AW119s and 109s, Bell 206s and 212s, and Airbus H135s and H145s, White is the former general manager of the Era Training Center, director of training, and senior check airman and pilot.
While operating a tiltrotor may seem daunting, White said his experience in the Leonardo AW609 simulator was "quite surprising."
In the simulator, White said he "flew through all the normal and abnormal elements."
"It was quite easy and intuitive to fly," in part because the 609 has the collective and cyclic controls of a normal helicopter, he said. Helicopter mode requires some understanding of the right trim for the rotors to take off at a certain angle, but pushing a thumb switch on the collective accomplishes that task, White said.
The FAA and EASA may certify the AW609 this year. Leonardo is building prototypes of the aircraft at the company's Philadelphia plant. There, Leonardo 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 plans to build the TH-119 that is in the running to become the Navy’s next training helicopter.
With a pressurized cabin, the 609 is designed to cruise at 20,000 to 25,000 feet — above adverse weather and far above the cruise altitude for a traditional helicopter.
Leonardo has boosted the aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight by using lighter materials for the airframe. The aircraft has more powerful Pratt & Whitney PT6 engines — each with about 2,000 shp — and stronger landing gear to support that increased load.
In February last year, Leonardo and Era Group announced that the latter would be the launch customer for the AW609, and Leonardo said that Era has ordered two 609s and that Leonardo had received interest from operators for 50 of the tiltrotors.
The aircraft's performance over "real deep water offshore could be a huge benefit," White said, as would its more than 200 kt speed in point-to-point voyages, such as search and rescue at sea, that require quick transport to hospitals ashore.