Former US Marines MV-22 Osprey pilot Bryan Willows first piloted the AW609, the world’s first tiltrotor civil aircraft.
Willows is currently program manager for Advanced Air Mobility at Bristow Group, the launch customer for Leonardo’s aircraft, and participated in a one-hour demonstration flight this week in Philadelphia, where the manufacturer is based in the US.
“Flying the AW609 for the first time was an exciting experience and important milestone for me,” said Willows. “The AW609 is an important aircraft as Bristow helps advance vertical flight technology just like we have for the past 70+ years.”
The AW609 project has suffered numerous mishaps since it was launched by Bell and Boeing in 1996. In addition to the change of partners (Leonardo, then Agusta, joined the program in 1998), the tiltrotor suffered a fatal accident in 2015.
The pandemic has also delayed the manufacturing program for the first series production aircraft that should have been ready in 2021. Now Leonardo says that Bristow’s first AW609 is in the final stretch of assembly in Philadelphia, but does not risk a forecast of entry into service.
1,700 flights hours
Although the commercial debut is expected in 2023, Leonardo still depends on the tiltrotor certification by the FAA, the US civil aviation agency. Due to the originality of the project, it has been necessary to create specific legislation for the AW609.
To date, Leonardo claims to have performed more than 1,700 flight hours with tiltrotor prototype aircraft. Combining the advantages of a helicopter, the AW609 can reach speeds similar to those of a turboprop aircraft, in addition to having a considerable range.
The program delay, however, could become a major problem as eVTOLs advance. With an ecological proposal and more automated flight systems, these 100% electric aircraft may, in the not too distant future, approach the performance of the AW609, whose operation is more complex and polluting.