Leonardo Helicopters could begin demonstration flights this year of its AW609 tiltrotor for the Italian military and other domestic government agencies.

Gian Piero Cutillo, managing director of Leonardo Helicopters, says the company has been studying the potential for “more governmental applications” for the tiltrotor in order to broaden its customer base beyond launch operators from the oil and gas and VIP markets.

AW609 AC3 prototype

Source: Leonardo Helicopters

Certification is nearing for long-running tiltrotor programme

“There is a lot of interest from the armed forces and other agencies in Italy and we are studying together what the mission could be,” he says, an initiative which could include “trials” of the platform.

Potential applications include transport, surveillance, and search and rescue operations. 

In addition to boosting public interest in the helicopter, such an effort could also help to drive “maturity” into the tiltrotor, Cutillo said during a pre-Heli-Expo press conference in Anaheim on 26 February.

Although Leonardo is likely to wait until “right after” the AW609 is certificated – a goal anticipated later this year or in early 2025 – company sources indicate the test campaign could potentially happen before then.

To achieve the flights, the airframer will need close co-operation with Italy’s Armaereo armaments and military airworthiness agency, says Cutillo.

To date, the confirmed backlog for the AW609 remains in single figures: Bristow Group is taking a pair of aircraft and an undisclosed VIP customer four units. Malaysia’s Weststar Aviation will also use a single example to assist with the service-entry process.

But Cutillo says the company is not overly concerned with the state of the orderbook: “We are really very much focused on getting certification. Even if there is a lot of interest, we are not pushing to have these kind of pre-orders.”

In development for closing in on three decades, the AW609 now appears to be in the “final stages” of its long route to service entry, a milestone expected in 2025.

Matteo Ragazzi, the company’s engineering and innovation director, says around 350 flight hours remain to be completed: 150h of function and reliability testing using aircraft 6 and 200h of other tests split between aircraft 4 and 5. That target is “perfectly achievable”, he says.

However, he highlights the challenges of working with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the lead certification agency for the tiltrotor, which remains “nervous” due to its part in the Boeing 737 Max scandal.

Cutillo says the FAA is “taking things quite prudently” but believes the programme is making “significant progress”.

Leonardo Helicopters is “extremely confident” that it can later this year or in early 2025 “terminate” all the certification activities it needs to perform, including the submission of paperwork, Cutillo adds.

A series of “very successful” demonstration flights were also performed last year in the USA and Dubai, he adds. Those included guests and pilots from Japan, where the AW609 is being considered as a tool to improve inter-island connectivity.