Helicopter-plane readies for takeoff
ARLINGTON, Texas (Reuters) -- Soon to be taking to the skies of north Texas will be a hybrid aircraft that is part plane, part helicopter and has the potential to change civil aviation.
Fort Worth, Texas-based Bell/Agusta Aerospace Co. is just weeks away from conducting its first test flights of a civilian tilt-rotor aircraft, called the BA 609. A tilt-rotor has engines that pivot 90 degrees so the aircraft can take off vertically like a helicopter then fly horizontally like a plane.
While the company is banking on obtaining civilian transport category flight certification from the Federal Aviation Administration, a military tilt-rotor aircraft -- the V-22 "Osprey" -- was grounded in December 2000, in the wake of two crashes that killed 23 Marines.
Safety questions raised
Officials at Bell/Agusta, a joint venture of Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. and Italy's Agusta, are quick to explain that its BA 609 and the military's Osprey are built to different specifications and for different missions. Development on the civilian tilt-rotor project, however, was slowed because of the difficulty facing the military's Osprey.
"From a design criteria standpoint and a testing standpoint, we are convinced that the BA 609 is a stable and safe design," said Don Barbour, executive marketing director at Bell/Agusta.
The BA 609 has two Pratt & Whitney turboprop engines and can hold six to nine passengers, depending on its configuration. The main selling point of the aircraft is that it does not need a runway on either end of the flight.
It flies about twice the speed of a typical helicopter with comparable capacity and has a range of 750 nautical miles.
To put it another way, it can pick up an executive from her New York office and land that executive on the helipad of the company's Washington office some 220 miles away in less than an hour -- all without a trip to the airport.
The company would not comment on the costs involved to develop the aircraft, or its estimates for revenue and profit.
No price released
The BA 609 will be less expensive than a Gulf Stream corporate jet, but more expensive than a small helicopter, Barbour said, adding the company has not released the price of its civilian tilt rotor.
The company is looking to be fully FAA certified by 2007, when it will start marketing the aircraft. Bell/Agusta has about 80 orders -- a two- to three-year backlog -- for the BA 609, with about half of the orders coming from North America, a third from Europe and the rest coming from Pacific Rim countries and Latin America.
Some of the potential uses for the civilian tilt-rotor include serving as corporate aircraft, a rescue aircraft and as a means of ferrying oil workers to offshore rigs.
The BA 609 can take workers to the oil rigs that are the farthest offshore and back on one tank of gas, whereas helicopters have to hopscotch to fuel barges along the way to distant rigs because of their limited range.
Todd Curtis, a former safety analyst at Boeing who runs the AirSafe.com Web site (http://www.airsafe.com/), said that tilt- rotor technology has been around for decades. The main challenge is getting the public to accept it as a mode of air transport.
"The difference now is the question of can this concept be put into a form that is reliable and safe enough to work in the civilian field? This will be the big hurdle that the project will have to cross," Curtis said.
Curtis added there will be a learning curve for pilots of civilian tilt rotors, who will have to master the difficulties of flying an aircraft that has two turboprops that can rotate 90 degrees.
He also said there is a higher tolerance among the users of smaller aircraft for crashes than there is for commercial passenger planes or military aircraft.
"They will tolerate a higher accident rate than the passenger community. It is considered a work-place hazard," he said.
Tilt rotor concerns
One problem for tilt-rotor aircraft occurs during a rapid descent when the rotors can lose lift, causing the aircraft to crash or flip over. This dangerous flight condition is known as vortex ring state, or VRS.
One of the crashes that occurred with the Osprey -- built by Boeing and Bell Helicopter's Textron Inc. -- was likely due to VRS. Aviation safety experts have said VRS will not be a major concern for civilian tilt rotors because they will not be used like the Osprey in dropping troops into war zones.
The civilian version will also not be weighed down by a heavy undercarriage designed to absorb enemy fire as on the military's version.
Ground testing of the BA 609 is nearing completion and the first test flight is likely to take place in April. Bell/Agusta is ready to train pilots for the new craft, including golfer Greg Norman who has said he wants to buy one.
"The BA 609 will not replace helicopters. It will not replace airplanes. It is actually a third, new choice that will complement fleets," Barbour said.
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