AgustaWestland AW609 certification slips to 2017

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Certification of the AgustaWestland AW609 tiltrotor has slipped to 2017 as the Anglo-Italian helicopter manufacturer wrestles with an ambitious development programme and regulatory uncertainty over how to approve a concept never previously used for civil applications.

AgustaWestland in November 2011 acquired the remainder of the programme from former partner Bell Helicopter, and in July 2012 announced a wide-ranging update of the design, which has seen prototypes flying since 2003, including new engines, avionics and flight management systems.

It is this modernisation effort that is partly to blame for the delay to certification previously scheduled for 2016, says the manufacturer. "It is a result of the upgrades being implemented into the aircraft," it says. "We need to develop a brand new cockpit and more capable avionics and couple this with the typical and peculiar tiltrotor technology.

"We want to be sure when it is on the market it can perform as expected."

In parallel with the development effort, it is working with civil aviation regulators both to agree certification standards and to ensure the tiltrotor's acceptance into civil airspace.

According to the manufacturer, the AW609 will be able to perform vertical take-offs and landings, while also attaining a cruise speed of 275kt (510km/h) and climbing to a ceiling of 25,000ft (7,620m), far outside a helicopter's normal operating limits.

Officials from AgustaWestland and Italy's civil aviation regulator ENAC on 3 June presented the AW609 and its performance characteristics to ICAO's council in Montreal, including representatives from the latter's Air Navigation Commission.

AgustaWestland sees a requirement for the development of dedicated "vertiports" to serve civil tiltrotors, which are "totally different from what has been developed for fixed- or rotary-wing operations".

"We have emphasised to the regulatory authorities that there needs to be brand new rules covering the activities of civil tiltrotors," it says.

The AW609 is being developed in Arlington, Texas, with the US Federal Aviation Administration the certification authority for the aircraft. The FAA is creating a "dedicated certification standard" for the programme, says AgustaWestland.

Additionally, the airframer is evaluating the possibility of setting up a second production facility for the AW609 in the USA to complement its existing Italian factory.

"We consider the US market very important; it may be one of the most promising for the AW609. [A second production line] would help us meet US demand," says AgustaWestland.

It projects a global 20-year requirement for 450 civil tiltrotors, with around 30% of these for the USA. Tentative commitments for the type number around 70 aircraft.