AgustaWestland remains committed to the AW609 programme, despite the crash in Italy which killed two test pilots
Back in our April 2015 issue we featured AgustaWestland’s pioneering AW609 TiltRotor prototype. Boasting the ability to fly at twice the speed and range of a conventional helicopter, the 609 promises a revolution in long-distance transfer – qualities of particular interest to an energy industry pushing into tougher environments.
A platform development agreement for the TiltRotor programme between AgustaWestland and offshore transport service provider Bristow Group confirmed as much, and with the 609 expected to receive approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2017, the stage seemed set.
However, on October 30, one of the company’s prototype aircraft crashed in Northern Italy whilst performing a routine test flight. Both test pilots – Pietro Venanzi and Herb Moran – were killed in the crash, which occurred between Santhia and Tronzano, around 30 miles from the company’s Cascina Costa facility.
Unconfirmed reports in the Italian press suggested that an engine was on fire when the TiltRotor went down 27 minutes after take-off. AgustaWestland also stated later that the flightplan for the aircraft included the testing of its high-speed flight capabilities.
An investigation is now under way by a number of aviation agencies including the Italian Civil Aviation Authority (ENAC) and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the US FAA, but given its scope, this could be a difficult and protracted process.
Testing to continue
The aircraft – Prototype 2 – had been flying since November 2006, logging a total of 567 hours, and was expected to conclude its flight tests by the close of 2016.
At present, Prototype 1 has been voluntarily grounded by AgustaWestland, although ground tests on Prototype 3 and the assembly of Prototype 4 are still scheduled to continue. A November 8 statement released by AgustaWestland confirmed that “with regards to the AW609 tiltrotor programme, Finmeccanica-AgustaWestland is fully committed to mitigating any delay this tragic accident, and the subsequent investigation, might have on the programme itself.”
The loss of the second aircraft is a blow to what has until now been a promising programme. Weeks before, Prototype 2 had set a new point-to-point speed record, making a 720-mile (1,161-km) journey from Yeovil in the UK to the Cascina Costa site in just 2 hours and 18 minutes. The summer of 2015 also saw a new pitot-static system tested while the aircraft flew numerous flights around Europe.
However, the incident does not appear to have diminished corporate interest. Days after the crash, during the Dubai Airshow, the UAE’s Joint Aviation Command announced its intention to purchase three AW609s for search and rescue operations, with deliveries set to begin by 2019.
The results of the air crash investigation will make the commercial future of the TiltRotor clearer, yet its capabilities – not least of which have been proved by its speed record – are certain to remain in high demand.
[A run of helicopter incidents in the UK North Sea has not dented their use, nor prompted operators to consider alternative transport options.]