ROME — In the time it took Boeing and the US Marines to develop and put into service the Osprey tilt-rotor helicopter, Italy's AgustaWestland has lingered over development of its own, smaller tilt-rotor, prompting questions about the fate of the program.
Initially developed in partnership with Bell, the AW609 has racked up test flights and turned into an all-Italian program after the US firm went its separate ways.
But now, there's new interest has been shown in the aircraft by both the not one, but two Italian armed forces, as the Italian Navy and Army as both look to tilt-rotors as ways to boost capabilities.
Strategy documents issued in recent months by the Army and Navy have listed tilt-rotors as high on their shopping lists, just as AgustaWestland announces a series of planned upgrades for the AW609.
On March 3, the Italian firm said it was planning to an increase in the maximum takeoff weight to 18,000 pounds thanks to engine upgrades, landing gear modifications and better flight control techniques. In short, the firm said, the AW609 would now be able to fly 500 nautical miles in two hours carrying nine passengers.
Beyond that, The firm also said it was working on placing extra fuel tanks under the wings to boost maximum range to 1,100 nautical miles, or allow an 800-nautical-mile flight with six passengers in just over three hours.
The cabin door is also being enlarged to help the AW609 qualify for a search-and-rescue role, and a Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion flight deck is being added. With 1,200 flight hours achieved by two prototypes, AgustaWestland said it was aiming for FAA civil certification in 2017.
The firm sees the AW609 as ideal for oil and gas rig flights, and on March 19, Mauro Moretti, the CEO of parent company Finmeccanica, said the aircraft would prompt a "revolution" in the market. , when it finally comes to market.
Meanwhile, But in the meantime, two rather different potential customers, the Italian Army and Navy are eyeing up the aircraft. Last November, the Navy issued a forward looking strategy document that identified the tilt-rotor as a key future acquisition.
"It is as a way to obtain capabilities that the Navy has been denied due to its small size," said one official.
"With a tilt-rotor, you have an increase in the projection of troops and material, as well as an increase in the sustainability of vessels at sea, giving a small Navy operational possibilities it would not have otherwise," said the official. "It's the piece of a jigsaw we have never had."
Thanks to its range, speed and altitude, a tilt-rotor could provide other capabilities a shipborne helicopter could not, the official added.
"One possibility is as an early warning platform, which could see farther than a helicopter thanks to its higher altitude," he said. "Or as a refueling platform for STOVL joint strike fighters."
Navy officials have looked at the AW609 as well as the Osprey, with Marine Ospreys making landings on the Italian carrier Cavour.
One problem tiltrotor manufacturers need to confront is the damage caused by exhausts to flight decks when they take off or land as helicopters, with the engines directing their exhausts downwards.
"Companies are now looking at how to solve the problem of hot exhaust from tilt-rotors damaging flight decks," he said. "One solution they are considering is way to use gearing to allow the engine to remain fixed as the rotor changes position. Then the exhaust can be directed behind the tilt-rotor at all times." Such a development would also help civil tiltrotors landing on delicate asphalt."
In February, in a strategy document released by the Army, planners called for the development of a family of tilt-rotors from 8eight to 14 tons, including an 8-ton eight tonne version for six passengers for transport, evacuations and an aerial command post. A 14-tonne version could then be developed to fly 15 passengers or a load of 2.5 tons.
The document goes on to describe the planned development of a family of tilt-rotors for dual use ranging from eight to 14 tonnes. "A first aircraft of eight tonnes for six passengers would allow the rapid transport of personnel and material, host an aerial command post," and carry out medical evacuations, the document said.
That first tilt-rotor could be a commercial acquisition, after which the Army could oversee the development of a 14 tonne tiltrotor, able to transport 15 personnel or a load of 2.5 tonnes.
"The tilt-rotor in the lightweight configuration would be able to extend dramatically the range and speed available for liaison, medevac and command post missions," said an official.
An Army tilt-rotor might add mount a chin-mounted machine gun for self-defense and a targeting radar, he added.
Given the common interest by the Army and Navy, the Army official said that shared development of requirements could be considered.
"No direct contacts have been set up yet, but for sure this has to be done in order to optimize a possible common program and reduce Service Life costs," he said.