Industry sees big potential for civilian version of plane-chopper hybrid

The AW609 can take off and land on a helipad, making point-to-point transportation easy for executives who need to travel farther than a helicopter will go. Photo courtesy of Leonardo

May 20 (UPI) — Some 500 years after Leonardo da Vinci envisioned a medieval version of a helicopter, a company that now bears his name wants to revolutionize air travel by offering the first civilian tilt rotor aircraft — basically a cross between an airplane and a chopper.

The AW609 aircraft, made by Italian aerospace company Leonardo, is in its final prototype stage and will be the first civilian model, expected to roll off the assembly line in Philadelphia next year.

Tilt-rotor aircraft have been used by military forces for years, but the company envisions great private interest for myriad civilian uses in the corporate, law enforcement and emergency services sectors.

One potentially life-saving application, for example, could be speeding organ transplants by cutting the time it takes to get from city to city with a donor organ.

The aircraft’s ability to take off and land on a helipad, and fly with the speed, comfort and range of a traditional plane, is changing the market, says Bill Sunick, head of tilt-rotor marketing for Leonardo.

“We’ve got demand across many market segments worldwide,” he said. “It’s about getting folks to think differently. You’re trying to change people’s mindset.”

The AW609 is able to fly at more than 300 mph, nearly twice the speed of an ordinary helicopter, but it needs only 60 feet of clearance to land and take off vertically. When carrying a heavier load, it can take off with only 300 or 400 feet of runway.

Inside is a pressurized cabin flyable at 25,000 feet, allowing the aircraft better fuel economy and the ability to avoid bad weather and tall mountains — things choppers must fly around. It borrows many technologies from the military V-22 Osprey and got its start at the same place — Bell Helicopter Texas.

Leonardo broke away from Bell eight years ago to build the AW609, and because it’s a plane-chopper hybrid, the Federal Aviation Administration must invent a new category for civilian “vertical take-off and landing,” or VTOL, aircraft.

Development of the craft has had its share of problems. In 2015, the test flight of a prototype killed two pilots when a propeller clipped the right wing. Investigators said the craft was flying too fast during dive maneuvers and the aerodynamics made the blades unstable. Leonardo says the model has greatly improved since then, but certain challenges remain — including market forces.

Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for the Teal Group, an aviation consulting firm, said at $25 million apiece, the AW609 will have a small market.

“The capabilities are indeed interesting,” Aboulafia said. “But the price point and operational costs are a big premium over similar-sized machines. There’s got to be some kind of market that’s dependent on that size and range. That’s such a big premium relative to the cabin.”

He said it is a “Cadillac solution, and it’s not a Cadillac market.”

Leonardo’s Sunick disagrees, saying the craft’s versatility means businesses no longer need both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft and separate crews for both. Billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is said to want one. Charter operators also have shown interest for direct city-to-city connections.

Mark Huber, an aviation industry veteran and editor of Aviation International News, considers the AW609 a game-changer because of its versatility. With a range of 1,100 nautical miles, it could could take off from downtown Chicago and fly into midtown Manhattan — without any stops at any airports.

The company says it expects FAA certification this year and the aircraft to enter the market in 2020.

Leonardo isn’t the only company developing VTOL aircraft. Boeing is developing an autonomous, electric-propelled VTOL aircraft for Uber’s planned ride-share air service.

One key sector Leonardo believes will want a tilt-rotor aircraft is for search and rescue. Now, rescue agencies fly fixed-wing aircraft to locate missing people because they are faster than ground vehicles. With a tilt-rotor aircraft, it would be possible to search at a quicker pace and hoist the missing people once they’re found.

“[It is] going to provide much faster emergency medical service,” industry observer Huber said, calling the craft “particularly helpful for search and rescue and high-value [emergency medical] transports.”

“Not only can we offer faster search and rescue, but looking at the operations we offer substantially lower operational cost,” Sunick added.

Though tilt-rotor crafts are used in the military, Huber sees governments doubling down on this type of machine.

“It’s really going to be able to do a lot of things,” he said. “Governments will embrace it.”


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