At an airport just north of downtown Philadelphia, test pilots Dan Wells and Paul Edwards fire up a pair of 1,900-horsepower turboshaft engines. Slowly, the aircraft’s two rotors, each with three blades and 25 feet in diameter, start to rotate. Pointing straight up, they’re soon thumping the air and the ear drums of everyone nearby.
When they’re ready to taxi, Wells and Edwards pitch the rotors forward a few degrees and glide toward the runway. They accelerate the engines to full power, roll a few hundred feet, then lift off at a speed that, compared that of similarly sized business jet, seems downright leisurely. The pilots bank to the right, tilt the rotors fully forward, and speed off to a designated testing area high above the rural farmland of southeastern Pennsylvania, where they’ll run through a battery of speed and maneuverability tests.
If they had wanted to, Wells and Edwards could have shot into the sky without leaving their original parking spot. But the engineers on their team wanted to know more about the Leonardo AW609’s short-takeoff capabilities, so they went the runway route. When they return an hour later, they come in with the rotors angled straight up, hover 20 feet above the ground, execute a casual pirouette, and touch down onto a helipad.
The AW609 tiltrotor aircraft is the civilian cousin of the larger, military V-22 Osprey, aimed at corporate aviation, search and rescue operations, and oil rig transport. It looks like it should be a complicated mess to fly, with those big rotors that swivel back and forth, shifting the aircraft for vertical to horizontal flight, helicopter to airplane mode. But the pilots say it’s surprisingly docile—and capable.
“It’s all fly-by-wire, and much of the transition between flight modes is automated. But the thing that’s always surprised me the most it how fast it is,” Wells says. The AW609 can fly at 320 mph; most helicopters top out around 170 mph. “Its acceleration has blown away some of the other pilots who’ve flown alongside it during testing.”
Both ease of flight and performance will be critical if the nine-passenger aircraft, now a prototype, has any hope of commercial success. That’s hardly a given, since analysts estimate one of these things will cost around $25 million—about what you pay for a super-medium category helicopter. It’s also up against many misconceptions about tiltrotors, mostly stemming from the Osprey’s growing pains, which came in the form of several high-profile and fatal accidents. Those flaws have since been fixed, and the Osprey has proven its capability in operational use with the Marine Corps and Air Force.
“Our greatest challenge is getting folks to think differently about tiltrotors,” said Bill Sunick, Jr., Leonardo’s senior manager of marketing for the AW609. “This is a new class of powered-lift aircraft, and it allows you to always use the asset at your disposal as you want and need to use it.”
That tiltrotor design, after all, is the AW609’s key feature. By combining vertical and horizontal flight, this and other VTOL aircraft could pick up CEOs right at their helipad, then fly them wherever they need to go. They could help in search and rescue operations where runways are hard to find, and carry the injured all the way to distant hospitals. They could move people to and from offshore oil rigs.
The AW609 has alluring features to go with its VTOL status and heady speed. Unlike any conventional helicopter, it’s pressurized, so it can fly at 25,000 feet, a boon for efficient cruising. Still, in the excruciatingly cost-conscious aviation market, it might remain a hard sell.
“The risk here isn't technological maturation,” says aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia, with the Teal Group. “The AW609 depends on commercial reality, rather than military capabilities. The Marines and Air Force will pay a 100 percent premium, relative to a similar-sized helicopter, for the V-22's speed and range. Will civil customers pay a 100 percent premium for speed and range? A lot of civil helicopter missions involve 50 to 100 mile trips, so they'd pay much more for a smaller cabin, just to save a few minutes.” Of course, customers might pay more more the ability to go farther and faster.
Whether or not the AW609 can establish itself in the aviation market, Leonardo expects it will enter commercial service in earnest in 2019, after certification. And easy operation might outweigh cost here. After Wells completed his real-world test flight, he took me for a spin in the company’s development simulator. Despite having just basic flight experience—none of it in helicopters—I managed a full flight, including takeoff and landing, with just a few interventions from Wells.
Much of the help comes from the AW609’s inherent (and also computer-aided) stability. In helicopter mode, speed and blade-angle differentials between the two rotors make the aircraft yaw left or right, turn, bank, and so on, per your commands. You control the angle of the rotors themselves through a simple thumb dial in the engine control lever, so you progressively pitch them forward to transition from vertical to forward flight, with no risk of stalling as you might have in an airplane. As speed increases, airflow over the wing begins to generate lift, enabling you to swing the rotors all the way forward.
Flying around the digitally rendered Philadelphia suburbs proved easy. Landing was harder, mostly because you have to aim for a fixed point (as opposed to a long runway) before switching from horizontal to vertical flight. Overall, it was more fun and less stressful than the helicopter simulators I’ve tried.
It also proved an enticing virtual ride, given the ability to get up and go from any location and reach significant speeds on the way. So it’s easy to see how the concept could appeal to one up-and-coming market: the autonomous air taxi. Smaller electrified versions of the tiltrotor are already on the minds of outfits pursuing that dream, including the secretive Joby Aviation and Uber’s collaboration with Bell Helicopters. So even if the AW609 may not end up being your own personal transport—unless you work on an oil rig, have a corner office, or fall off a cliff—its still possible that something like it might show up on your lawn someday.
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