Aircraft: Full Tilt

<< Back to Robb Report, February 2002
  • Jeff Miller

The holy grail of aviation is an aircraft that requires no runway, needs no airport, and flies long distances at turbine speeds. The BA609 tiltrotor is exactly such an aircraft—one that can take off like a helicopter and cruise like an airplane. The BA609 is designed to take off vertically, with its twin engines aimed skyward and its 26-foot propellers acting as helicopter rotor blades. Once the BA609 lifts off, the aircraft transitions to forward cruise flight, as its engine nacelles rotate 90 degrees to align with the wing.

Officials of Bell/Agusta Aerospace Co., the U.S.-Italian joint venture that is building the BA609, expect the tilt-rotor to make its first flight in mid-2002. The company has accepted more than 80 orders, mostly from current helicopter owners, including Ross Perot Jr., president and CEO of Perot Systems; Wayne Huizenga, AutoNation chairman; and golfer Greg Norman. “This is an aviation-savvy group,” says Donald J. Barbour, Bell/Agusta executive marketing director. “They appreciate the benefits of vertical lift, but have yearned for more speed and range.”

The BA609 will whisk passengers along at speeds reaching 275 knots and as far as 750 nautical miles. By comparison, the fastest helicopters cruise at approximately 140 knots, and range is typically limited to a few hundred miles, although you might want to escape the noise and vibration before then. “You simply cannot beat this type of aircraft for point-to-point travel times,” says Barbour, who cites common city commutes such as Dallas to Houston, Los Angeles to San Francisco, and Boston to Washington. “It eliminates the need for ground transportation and for getting to and from airports.”

Climb aboard the hybrid aircraft, which can accommodate up to nine passengers, and you will find it comparable to a light business jet, with leather seats, entertainment systems, and a small but elegant galley. The BA609 is pressurized and can cruise as high as 25,000 feet, similar to conventional turboprop aircraft. Pressurization also should help make the cabin significantly quieter than helicopters.

If the tiltrotor concept sounds familiar, it is most likely because of media attention on the Bell/Boeing V-22 Osprey, the BA609’s military counterpart. The Osprey, a much larger tilt-rotor aircraft designed to maneuver swiftly in and out of combat zones, suffered two fatal crashes in 2000. Bell/Agusta engineers express confidence in the BA609’s numerous redundant safety features. Should an engine fail, for example, its propeller will still be powered by a driveshaft from the other engine. The BA609 will also have fly-by-wire controls—computer-aided devices programmed to aid pilots by preventing mishandling—to make the aircraft even safer. The Boeing 777 and all Airbus commercial aircraft have fly-by-wire controls.

The BA609 will be certified to the FAA’s transport category standards, the same as those for commercial airliners. “We will conduct a two- to three-year flight test program,” says Barbour, “to explore every corner of the flight envelope and to assure the design’s reliability.”

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