The military has been flying this type of tilt-rotor aircraft that hovers like helicopters but flies faster and farther just like planes, for years now. And it seems that starting next year, they will also be flying civilians, according to the manufacturing company. The production model is on track to be approved for civilian roles such as emergency medivac flights, search-and-rescue operations, and executive travel. Plus, tilt-rotors could save precious time in the organ donation process.
Moreover, this new $35 million hybrid aircraft’s high utility lies in the fact that it does not need an airport to fly from or land on, it can do that wherever there’s a helipad available. This civilian version has been dubbed AW609 and it’s built by Italian aerospace company Leonardo has began this week in Philadelphia, United States. The company hopes that everything goes according to plan and that they gain the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval by the end of the year for the hybrid to enter service in 2020.
Unlike the Pentagon’s V-22 Osprey, the AW609 will be able to seat nine passengers and two crew members, and its pressurized cabin will allow it to reach an altitude of 25,000 feet, which is comfortably above any bad weather. The aircraft is able to fly thanks to its turboprop propeller engines found on the end of each wing, which swivels up or down depending on whether the hybrid is taking off, hovering, cruising, or landing. There are a few orders for the innovative aircraft until now, from customers such as Texas-based Era Group., United Arab Emirates, or Japan’s Nakanihon Air Service.
However, the development of the AW609 has been a very happy one along the years, a prototype crashed back in 2015, during a flight test, and killed two pilots. Richard Aboulafia, aviation industry analyst at Teal Group said: “Regulators are going to look very closely at this aircraft in light of the developmental difficulties, both for the 609 and its V-22 cousin. But they’re certainly not going to certify a product that isn’t safe.”
It’s also a new frontier for aviation regulation, being the first civilian production aircraft of its kind. Gian Piero Cutillo, managing director of Leonardo Helicopters stated: “We are doing this partnered together with the FAA. We are certifying a new helicopter – but at the same time – a turboprop [airplane]. It’s not an easy path because we are certifying a unique product. During this part there is a number of obstacles and difficulties that we are meeting together,” he said. “But I’m fairly confident. We are getting positive response numbers from the flight tests that we are doing. So we are making important and significant progress.”
It seems that there are also plans for a larger model as a passenger aircraft, able to seat up to 25 people, perhaps for rich executives wanting to avoid crowded airports. This model might be available as soon as 2023 according to Cutillo, who also added that the model is called Next-Gen and it’s part of a European project that could begin production within the 2030-2035 time frame.