Podcast: Revolutions in Vertical Flight S1 E3 - The Tiltrotor
Welcome to Shephard Studio’s podcast series on Revolutions in Vertical Flight, sponsored by our partner Bell.
The Revolutions in Vertical Flight podcast tells the little-known story of the history of rotorcraft, from the autogiro and helicopter, to the tiltrotor and eVTOL platforms in development today.
Revolutions in Vertical Flight reveals the stories of a small group of pioneers, the visions and beliefs that drove them, and their approach to invention and innovation.
And the Shephard Studio podcast series looks at the vertical flight innovation underway today, revealing how it will transform military operations and revolutionise urban mobility.
In this episode, we look at a persisting dream of the early rotorcraft pioneers – how to build a machine that combined the vertical takeoff and landing attributes of a helicopter with the speed and range advantages of a fixed wing aircraft.
We hear how a failed military mission in the Iranian desert ultimately led to the creation of the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor. And how Leonardo plans to bring the tiltrotor design to the civil market with its AW609.
Episode 4 - The Future Battlespace is here
A transcript of this episode is below:
In a corner of a museum in Somerset, England lie the last remains of what was seen as the future of aviation in the 1950s. The Fairey Rotodyne was a compound rotorcraft, featuring the characteristics of a helicopter, autogyro and fixed wing aircraft. A tip-jet powered rotor allowed the aircraft to take off and land vertically, and perform low speed manoeuvres. In cruise flight, the main rotor autorotated and the engine power drove the two propellers.
The Fairey Rotodyne fulfilled a dream held by so many - how do you combine the vertical take-off and landing attributes of a helicopter, with the speed and range advantages of a fixed wing aircraft?
Here’s Elfan Ap Rees, chairman of The Helicopter Museum, which holds the only remaining components of the aircraft.
Ap Rees: “This is all that survives of the Fairey Rotodyne. What we've got here is the rotor head and so on, which obviously sat on top of the aircraft, the section through the cabin and one of the test blades. This is actually not a full-size blade, believe it or not, but the Rotodyne was in many ways a very successful attempt to produce a compound aircraft which could fly London, Paris, London, Brussels as a compound aircraft.
“The problem really was, it was ahead of its time. You know, this blade for example, is extremely heavy. You know, it takes eight and nine people to lift and carry up cause the front end is, you know, is all stainless steel. But the principle was very simple. You didn't need a complicated gearbox, anything like that. You simply took air from the engines, which were also driving the propellers and you'd ducted it up through the rotor out to the tips where you mixed it with fuel.
“And so, you were able to lift off vertically using the rotors, transition to forward flight, switch the tip jets off and fly as a conventional aircraft using the propellers. And till you got to your destination, the rotors obviously giving a certain amount of lift to those who didn't need full scale wings. When you've got the other end, you switched the tip jets back on again and then landed vertically. And we've certainly, we've had people come here and look at the, you know, the rotor head assembly and so on because they were interested in developing it.
“So, you know, the basics of it are all there. And certainly, using modern materials where you'd save a lot of the weight and being able to use modern avionics and modern technology. I mean the computers that they had for this aircraft were very, very basic to say the least. So yeah, absolutely. It's, it's as a principle that's very, very real”.
Welcome to Shephard Studio’s special series on Revolutions in Vertical Flight, sponsored by our partner Bell. Over the course of six episodes, we are looking at the history of vertical flight, and discover the key individuals and revolutionary moments that created the rotorcraft industry we know today. And we are taking to look to the future, at how the next-generation rotorcraft of will shape the future battlespace, and hear how innovation underway today will enable the urban air mobility of tomorrow.
The British Fairey Rotodyne concept looked very promising and there were even plans to build a larger 75 seat version for commercial transport. But due to a combination of politics at the time and a lack of firm commercial orders, the project was cancelled in 1962. The dream of fast, long range VTOL aircraft would have to wait for several more decades.
Step forward the tiltrotor.
The tiltrotor configuration overcomes one of the most significant factors limiting the maximum forward speed of a helicopter, where the aerodynamic phenomenon known as “retreating blade stall” provides an unbreakable speed limit.
This is Richard Whittle, author of The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey.
Whittle: “The idea of the tiltrotor - one of the things that I wrote about in my book, which fascinated me – is the fact that the tiltrotor, this aircraft that has two big rotors on its wing tips that that swivel up to fly like a helicopter and forward to fly like an airplane – is a dream actually that went back to the 1930s almost to the beginning, of a rotorcraft. when people kept looking for a way to combine vertical and vertical take-off and landing with horizontal flight, which is a very, very difficult proposition. And, and you know, in the book I, I sort of tell the history of the convertiplane as it was originally called. And that started out there was the XV-3 convertiplane, which Bell did with actually the army, was most interested in the tiltrotor among the military services to start with.
“And then there was the XV-15 tiltrotor, which was done with the army and NASA. And in the 70s, the Marine Corps started looking for a replacement for, its CH-46 helicopters troop carrying helicopters, which were the primary means and those days of getting marines ashore from amphibious landing ships. And they had seen at the end of World War Two that that they needed more speed. And so Navy secretary John Lehman who was himself a helicopter pilot saw the XV-15 tiltrotor fly at the 1981 Paris air show and decided the Marines had to have a tiltrotor.”
It was the failure of Operation Eagle Claw that set the Pentagon squarely on the path towards the tiltrotor.
The lack of coordination inherent in the mission led to the establishment of Us Special Operations Command while low level helicopter night flying became the preserve of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment - the legendary Night Stalkers.
Whittle: “Well you put your finger on the most important events in the V-22’s history and one of the most important events in recent American military history. Operation Eagle Claw of course was this very complicated plan to rescue 53 Americans who were being held hostage in Iran and had been for six months since the Islamic revolution that overthrew America's ally.”
The failure also highlighted the need for a new type of aircraft that could not only take off and land vertically, but also could carry combat troops and do so at speed.
The Department of Defense forged ahead with the Joint Service, Vertical Take-off and Landing Experimental Program or JVX aircraft programme in 1981 then under US Army leadership. With this project, the Pentagon had set off down the long road towards the V--22 Osprey - today the world's only in-service tiltrotor.
Whittle: “Spivey and some of his colleagues at Bell put together a briefing after this disaster at Desert One that showed how it could have been accomplished in a single night. So that briefing remained very important through the history of the battle over the V-22. And in fact, after 2000 when the V-22 had two very bad crashes and a blue-ribbon commission of experts was formed to evaluate the program and see whether the Marines and the, whether the military actually should continue with the V-22 concept. The final report actually cited the same. It said there was no evidence the V-22 concept is fundamentally flawed. And it said as an example that Desert One mission involved two days of hiding in the desert. I mentioned that could have been carried out in a tiltrotor like aircraft in a single period of darkness. The Desert One disaster, which also of course had many, many effects on the future of the U S military among them, an emphasis on joint operations but that that mission was a critical event in the history of the V-22.”
Once the JVX programme was underway, Bell Helicopter - which had previously developed two tiltrotor demonstrators - partnered with Boeing Vertol to submit a proposal based on an enlarged version of the Bell XV-15 prototype.
A preliminary design contract was awarded on 26 April 1983. While the tiltrotor configuration was somewhat proven, the design challenges were significant, particularly given the number of missions the aircraft would have to undertake, as well as the need for it to be capable of operating from US Navy ships.
Whittle: “So the V-22 looks the way it does because there were a number of trade-offs that had to be made. Actually, the chief tiltrotor designer at Bell saw what initially the V-22 was supposed to be, which was a joint program in which the aircraft would be designed to do 10 different missions for four different military services. Its main mission was to carry Marines as many as 24 a combat load of troops. But it was, it was also supposed to do all the other transport missions of the CH-46 helicopter that the Marines flew, or the Sikorsky CH-53D helicopter, the Marines Corps, the Marine Corps flew and for the air force the v-22 was going to be used for special operations missions, which it is today. And for the air force and Navy, both the V-22 was supposed to be a combat search and rescue aircraft.
“And in the army also wanted the V-22 to do this pretty exotic electronic intelligence mission and the requirements for that mission. The, the aircraft had to be able to cruise at 30,000 feet - which is well above where you need oxygen - but evade surface to air missiles by diving toward the earth at a descent rate of 20,000 feet per minute or more while doing a split S manoeuvre and dispensing chaff and flares and then fly nap of the earth. In other words, low level.
“And, and that, you know, is, is quite almost an aerobatic thing for a cargo aircraft like this to do. And then it says and, and then the Osprey was also supposed to carry guns and air to air missiles and it was supposed to have external hard points for extra fuel tanks and electronic countermeasures. The original design was supposed to be this really quite complicated aircraft, but, but even for the Marine Corps one of the problems was that they wanted an aircraft that would carry as many troops as a CH 46 and they wanted it to fit on an amphibious assault ship and LHA because amphibious assault has always been the Marine Corps primary mission.”
Today, the V-22 can carry 24 troops or up to 20,000lb of internal cargo. Its max cruise speed is 266kt and it can travel 880 nautical miles without refuelling.
But it’s no exaggeration to say that as a child, the V-22 had a difficult upbringing. During testing from 1991 to 2006 there were four crashes resulting in 30 fatalities. These incidents, as well as cost increases over the original budget, led the V-22 programme to attract headlines with adjectives like “troubled”, “controversial” or even worse.
Richard Whittle describes this period as the “dark ages” when the programme was at threat of being cancelled several times.
Whittle: “In 2005 when all that testing was done and they were ready to start the, the steps necessary to put the V-22 in service. And I, I knew that, that they felt they were out of trouble when they invited me and a bunch of other reporters to come down to North Carolina and ride on the V 22. So, I figured if they thought there was any risk, they wouldn't be inviting us.”
Despite its difficult origins, the V-22 was declared operational with the US Marine Corps in 2007 and with the US Air Force two years later.
In October 2019 it was announced that the fleet of 375 Ospreys in service in the US Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy had surpassed the 500,000 flight hour mark.
Whittle: “I never thought will it reach 500,000 operational hours? But it did seem like it was a program that was perhaps doomed to failure until I flew in it and in 2005 and I wrote a piece for the Dallas Morning News at the time and that, I think my lead said something like, I thought I'd be retired before this would happen. And, and I, I was in the first a stick of reporters as they as they call the, the group of passengers. And the, the pilot was a young Lieutenant Colonel at the time named Chris Seymour call sign Mongo. And we get in the aircraft and strap in and, and you know, it started to take off and it felt a little bit like a helicopter and then suddenly he tilts the nose of the aircraft up.
“And, as I wrote at the time, it felt like you were in a Corvette sports car that had been floored. The big prop rotors when they're tilted forward, they have an immense amount of power. And one of the things that I liked about it was during the ride in which where he put us through like a two G turn, to sort of throw your back up against the wall and, and then he hovered over a grassy area and put the aircraft and then took off again and did a sort of a pirouette and then, and then came back and landed. One of the things you notice about it immediately if you've ever written and military helicopters is how, how you don't have the vibration, that the noise is pretty much the same because these aircraft are not insulated against noise. But you don't have the vibration you have in a helicopter where you have the road or overhead.”
Because of this inherent lack of vibration when compared to a helicopter, Whittle says people should not regard the V 22 as a helicopter that can fly fast. It should be regarded instead as an airplane that can land and take off vertically.
Whittle: “The old joke is that a helicopter is just a collection of thousands of parts flying in close formation. And so, they divide the vibration is usually pretty significant in a military helicopter. And there wasn't any of that in the V 22. It was a very smooth ride, very fast ride. The V 22 was a smooth ride in comparison in airplane mode. And that's one of the, one of the things that the opponents to the V-22, I think never quite gave it credit for is that it's, it's not really a helicopter that can fly fast. It's an airplane that can land and take off vertically. And so, you get the benefits of the V 22 from the fact that it, that it is an airplane more than you get the benefit of vertical take-off and landing. And of course, the V-22 itself can't hover as efficiently as a helicopter can and it's big. But that's why Bell has designed under something called the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstration Program, a new tiltrotor, a smaller tiltrotor. I think it's designed to carry maybe 11 troops, called the V-280 and the 280 stands for the fact that it's meant to fly 280 knots speed, which is I think in the neighbourhood of twice as fast as, as the best military helicopters go. And they have tried to learn from the, I want to call them design difficulties if not designed flaws of the V-22. So, the V-22 is the first operational tiltrotor. I expect there will be more.”
Hirschberg: “In the 1960s there was this VTOL wheel of propulsion concepts, which unfortunately is often called the VTOL wheel of misfortune.”
This is Mike Hirschberg, the Executive Director of the Vertical Flight Society.
Hirschberg: “In 1995 when I was working for the Joint Strike Fighter Program Office, we updated that to include the Joint Strike Fighter contenders. And so, I did a lot of research on the background and history of these different concepts. I read a number of articles, I did a series of 20 technical papers looking at the history of, of VTOL development around the world, both jet-borne, propellers, rotors and everything. One of the VTOL wheel, there was 45 different aircraft that are classified. And at the time there were only, you know, two, two concepts that ever actually went into production. That was a Harrier and then the Soviets had the, the Forger and the Yak 38.
“So, it was sort of like looking at all these attempts, including tiltrotors and nothing was really successful, which was why it got the unfortunate wheel of misfortune. But some of the lessons learned are, you know, there are limitations operational capability limitations that you have to either overcome or, or live with from something that takes off and lands vertically.
“So, you have a lot of down wash. The V-22 has certainly seen that. It takes an incredible amount of power. Though, if there's any way else that you can, that you can do your operations short take off or just longer runways you're always going to get more range and payload if you can take off with a wing. So, helicopters are limited. They're great at what they do but they're limited in range and speed and payload because they're thrusting downwards the whole time.
“The V-22 is really a result of the 50 some years of technology development before it became operational. So, it's the advanced turban engines that had the high power. It's the solving a lot of the problems with the rotating nacelles. Just normal aircraft development issues. So, the Marines are able to have a laser focus on what they want and that's why they have the most advanced vertical flight aircraft of any service or anybody in the world. So, you look at the CH-53K King stallion, F-35B Lightening lI. So, they've got the, they've got the most advanced aircraft in the world. Now some of that's because they don't have to buy as many because they're much smaller, so they can afford to put more money into the development and the acquisition costs because having one really high performance machine is seen as being better and cheaper and more capable than having multi, than having different types of aircraft for different missions.”
Scott Drennan is Bell's Vice President of innovation. His first job at the company was working on the V-22 and he remembers the engineering team's excitement about the tiltrotor’s potential.
Drennan: “My first programme was the V-22 and the V-22 is a transformational innovation across the whole aerospace industry. I mean at the time we were still in the EMD portion of the program and we all know there were some growing pains involved with that. As, as there often are with innovations. But now when you look at what's happening today with the V-22, it's just transformed all the concept of operations for the, for the military in particular the Marine Corps.
“And we look forward to having our next generation tiltrotor to do the same thing for the army. What happens with engineering teams that have been thinking about these, these products and these technologies prior to them actually becoming something that the customer is using. We get overly excited about it. Cause we're, we're into the details and, and you're looking at the vehicle saying, wow, it really does go twice as far, twice as fast and gosh, you know, look at the, the lift capacity that it has.
“Maybe it can do these other three missions as well as just that generic notion of twice as far, twice as fast. And so, you get excited about that. You know, that it's special, you know that it's transformational and then you're just trying to make that connection between you and the customer. And the Marines were great about that. And then you're just trying to make that you're, you're not getting too far ahead of yourself in what you're working on is leading edge, but it has to have the safety and the tech technical integrity that, that good engineers bring to any project that they're on. So, you try to keep that in check a little bit, but it's hard to not be really excited about knowing what, this is going to do for the future. And we knew that at the time.”
Smith: “One of the things that excites me about as a former Navy helicopter pilot and test pilot rotorcraft, is the ability to land and take off and unprepared zones. Essentially. You're not restricted to runaways”
This is Colin Smith who is Director of Military Business Development at Bell.
Smith: “And so the ability to do that and be able to hover and perform missions that you couldn't otherwise do with an aircraft because you have the ability for low slow flight is you know, an additional capability that I think is fun. Also, many of the helicopters are crew oriented to as opposed to some of the aircraft that you might think of from a, from a jet perspective. So, I like those two things about rotorcraft. The other in the interface you might have with hoisting passengers in and out of the helicopters are doing some of those, those kinds of missions that are unique to rotorcraft vice fixed wing aircraft. And I think that in particular is what excites me about tiltrotor because with tiltrotor, you getting the best of both worlds.
“You get ability to, to hover. And, and take off like a, like a rotorcraft and execute those missions. And then you have the range and speed to get to where you need to go to do the next rotorcraft type mission. So, you're kind of getting the best of both worlds, worlds with a tiltrotor aircraft. So, you're kind of bridging the gap between like an H-60 and a C-130 cargo plane or something, somewhere similar to that.”
For the Bell Boeing partnership that produces the Osprey, the tiltrotor has been a significant revenue stream over the past decade. The most recent multiyear contract announced in July 2018 was worth $4.2 billion and takes production out to 2024.
Smith: “Well, the V-22 programme has been extremely important to Bell. I mean, that's the, I think at the core of Bell's sales has been the development of tiltrotor aircraft. We're the first ones to bring the tiltrotor, first you know, developmentally from the XV-3 through the XV-15 to the V-22. And now we have the first military operated, the tiltrotor that's been fielded. And of course, then the V-280 is going through its initial demonstration, a technical demonstration for the army. We're looking forward to supporting the Army, Marine Corps and then hopefully even the other services with the Navy and the, maybe even the Air Force with the V-280 or a derivative of the V-280. So, tiltrotor evolution continues. And I think that's exciting for Bell because we're the company that's been able to do that.
“I think one of the important things about not only surpassing 500,000 hours, but it's also combat proven. A lot of those hours are combat proven and there are a lot of lives that were saved of the hours of the V-22. Their traditional helicopter could not provide both in the combat search and rescue and the personnel recovery roles. Basically they were able to conduct a missions and then if when they took fire and people were injured, they were able to get those people back to medical support faster so that they save their lives and at longer ranges they were able to respond to a call centre assistance to bring people out that wouldn't have necessarily been saved with a helicopter. The helicopter couldn't have gotten there in time or didn't have the range to go get them.
“So, I think that’s important thing of those 500,000 hours about what the aircraft is actually accomplishing during that time. And it's definitely changing the way the war fighter fights, like we talked about earlier and saving people's lives.”
After not initially committing to the purchase of the tiltrotor, the US Navy ordered 39 V-22s in June 2018. Designated the CMV-22B, the US Navy variant will be used for the carrier onboard delivery (COD) role.
This will be similar to the MV-22B but include an extended-range fuel system, a high-frequency radio, and a public address system.
Smith: “So from a, Navy capability point of view, and this Navy's getting ready to receive its first aircraft here in fiscal year 2020, we'll deliver that capability to the Navy and then they will have initial operational capability in 2021 with their first deployment and the Navy is going to use it to replace the carrier on board delivery aircraft, which is the current C2 aircraft.
“It will fundamentally change for the Navy about how it could do logistics operations. So right now, the Navy is looking at it as a one-for-one replacement maybe, but there are some people that have their mind open to how the V-22 might be used differently to expand the way logistics is supported to the Navy. So right now, logistics is going from the shore to the carrier and then from the carrier, it's being dispersed to the other small ships and other locations and the fleet that it needs to go to.
“But V-22 could go point to point for the Navy. So, we could go to the supply ship instead of the carrier. It could go from a supply ship to the, to the carrier, and it could do that, that the extended ranges that the V-22 offers. So, in a theatre, which is very important for the Navy, like the Pacific, now you have increased logistics net that you could throw down from an airborne point of view over top of the surface assets, ships that are out there for the Navy.
“So, I think it's going to be extremely important for them. The Navy variant compared to the Marine Corps does also get increased range for the Navy because of its missions in theatres like the Pacific and that extended range it needs at sea. Instead of going from just a ship, there's a ship to shore, like the Marines are from shore to shore that extended range at sea. It gets, it should be able to go 1,150 nautical miles is the, a range of the Navy wants to get out of the platform which compares to about a thousand miles for the CV-22 variant. And then about 809 nautical miles for the Marine Corps variant, which is a rough figure. So, it'll have slightly larger sponsons.
“When you look at it visually, the, the, the side, the side sponsons will be slightly larger and it will have additional wink tanks inside the wing. They carry the additional fuel that's required for that. It also have a beyond the line of sight radio, so HF radio that allowed to talk at extended ranges like you need in the ocean environments. And then it'll also have a public address system because part of the mission for the Navy is carrying passengers to and from the ships.
“So those are three, three main things and the major things that are different for the Navy platform and the other platforms. But very excited in particular about how the Navy might be able to operate the platform. And once they start using it in 2021 and maybe they'll consider, other missions that they might be able to, to use it for in the future. And then long-term the Navy is looking at some point replacing the H-60 that has on board its ships with future vertical lift aircraft. I think those evolutions are what excited me about it, and that's why I'm excited for the US Navy to get its first tiltrotor aircraft and then understand how the Navy could change its operations. Because right now it's got a web of helicopters running around inside the strike group and a little bit extended from the strike group conducting the various missions from anti-submarine warfare to surface warfare to general logistics support. But fundamentally it's constrained. That bubble is constrained by the range of a traditional helicopter. And then now when the US Navy gets a tiltrotor technology into their fleet, now they're going to understand they can make that bubble wider for the carrier strike group and it's you know, sphere of influence. So those are the kinds of things that excite me when I look at it from a, from a military operator point of view.”
The Bell Boeing partnership is now looking to extend the production of the V-22 further through additional international sales after securing its first foreign customer Japan, which is purchasing 17 Ospreys.
Smith: “For the V-22, our foreign allies and foreign military partners out there is a lot of interest for the V-22 and what the tiltrotor could bring to their militaries as well. And in particular those countries which are getting the Joint Strike Fighter are considering V-22 is a capability that in particular for the US Navy and one of the reasons why the US Navy is getting the aircraft is that it can internally carry the engine power module for the Joint Strike Fighter. And this is an important logistics support capability. So, some of those countries, like the United Kingdom who are getting a Joint Strike Fighter and they have their Queen Elizabeth ship, this might be a capability that they value for them. So, they in fact have done operations with the UK and landed on their ships.
“A few other countries that we've, our military in the US, has conducted landings with as well is the French and the Japanese of course are our one current military customer for the V-22 operations off those ships. And then Japan is going to get 17 of those aircraft. And their pilots are training with the US Marine Corps now at New River with their aircraft and, and New River, North Carolina. So, I think there's a lot of potential for V-22 to expand around the world with its capability from, for our foreign allies and initiatives.”
The presence of a tiltrotor within its ranks has clearly changed the way the US military conducts business. For the US Marine Corps in particular, having an aircraft like the V-22 tiltrotor as a replacement for its CH-46 tandem helicopters has been a game-changer.
Here’s Corporal Michael Knox, with VMM-263
Knox: “The greatest strengths that separate it from all the other platforms in the Marine Corps is that we can go really far, we can go really fast, we can do many different roles and carry up to 24 passengers fully loaded for a combat role, put them into a zone, and we can be out of the zone extremely quickly.
“We can pull people that are injured, we can take them and we can get them to a hospital extremely quickly. So, if there's, it's only time creditable, such as there's a high priority target in a village or a city somewhere far away and we need to get there yesterday, V-22 will would get there much faster than any other helicopter in the military.”
Smith: “Fundamentally, the V-22 for the U S Marine Corps was a large change. So, and they were flying the CH 46, which was their ship to shore movement, which is fundamentally what the Marine Corps is about, is bringing that naval force from the ship and bringing it to shore. They were limited in range to approximately 50 nautical miles. And so, they wanted to expand that capability for the Marine force with their amphibious ships to be farther out of harm's way back into the lateral areas. And the tiltrotor technology, and the V-22 in particular provides them the extended range that they need to get from a ship that's farther off the beach. And then the increase in speed also lets them cover that range in, in the same amount of time or shorter. So fundamentally, it's been very much transformational for the Marine Corps. And now that the Marine Corps has had the aircraft and operated you know, operating it, it's been called the most in demand aircraft for the United States Marine Corps by the commandant of the Marine Corps.
“So as, the Marine Corps continues to use it, it continues to find new ways that it might do its missions and develop its doctrine. And I think as the army looks at V-280, I think they're going to see that their doctrine could change substantially from the limited or range and speed of reaction that a traditional helicopter provides. And if they ended up going with tiltrotor for their new Future Vertical Lift platforms, their FLRAA platform then that could allow them to change the way they do business as well and take advantage of that increased range and speed. So very important for Marine Corp, from a Us Air Force perspective, it's providing a national level asset capability for the Air Force Special Operations Command. So, it's able to respond 24/7 point-to-point getting a, what they call it, the troops directly to the X operators to the X.
“It's got the range and speed to do that sky inflight refuelling capability that allows it to even go beyond just the one tank of gas that it holds internally. And so that's a capability that they didn't have had before where they would use several different platforms maybe to get the special operators there. Now they can do that with the V-22 and fundamentally it allows them to do continue to do more of their missions. And one space of night operations for AFSOC. A lot of the Genesis of it was out of the Desert One mission into Iran, right? So that that would have taken you know, some 33 and it took 33 hours to roughly to execute. And now the V-22 can do that same mission within a period of darkness. So, it's fundamentally changed our national level capability through the Air Force Special Operations Command, how they operate.”
We will look at the future of the tiltrotor in military operations next time, in particular Bell’s development of its V-280 for the US Army.
But Bell’s experience with its XV-15 demonstrator and later on the V-22 programme has also led to a civil tiltrotor programme. Albeit one Bell is now longer involved in.
The project initially started life as a partnership between Bell and Italy’s Agusta signed in 1998. What was then called the Bell/Agusta BA609, is a twin-engined tiltrotor VTOL aircraft with a configuration similar to that of the V-22 Osprey.
The objective was to provide the civil market with an aircraft capable of landing vertically like a helicopter while having the range and speed in well excess of conventional rotorcraft.
In particular, the BA609 was seen as an ideal aircraft for VIP customers and offshore oil and gas operators. But differing opinions about the commercial viability of the project caused Bell to formally withdraw from the project - the BA609 becoming the AW609.
Sunick: “The Bell Boeing team who are the creators of the V-22 Osprey in the mid-nineties decided on the success of that program and the maturation of the technology that it was time to pivot to the commercial side.”
Here is William Sunick, head of tiltrotor marketing at Leonardo.
Sunick: “So in 1996, Bell Boeing launched the AW609 and geared toward introducing this aircraft, this technology rather, into the commercial market space. You know, basically the advantage of tiltrotor technology that, you know, giving the capability to go a far, fast, vertical, right – the tiltrotor’s speed, range, altitude, with the vertical component there in your mission. We saw the benefits that the military users are having, again a lot of great advancements in aviation that first started on the military side. Then wanting to bring that advantage to the commercial operators. So, the Bell Boeing team started in 1996 and around that time is when Boeing also merged with McDonald Douglas and, and decided to really focus on military rotorcraft. So shortly thereafter, in 1998 time period during the initial design phase Boeing decided to exit the commercial rotorcraft business.
“And as part of that exit, the AW609, because there's commercial rotorcraft so Bell went in search for new partner. Bell has had a long-standing relationship with Agusta at the time dating back, you know, right after World War II and in the early fifties, with the Bell 47, right, that Agusta was building over in Italy. It made a lot of sense, right? And the things that Agusta was working at the time were very, very complimentary. So that relationship was solidified at the end in 1998 - the Bell Agusta and the BA609, and that relationship continued right about to the latter part of the first decade of a 21st century. And at that point, Bell decided they wanted to go in a different direction and so the Agusta team, now Leonardo team, got full ownership of the program in late 2011. So, from late 2011 old Agusta -now Leonardo Helicopters - took full ownership of the programme.”
Today three AW609 prototypes are flying, as the company works towards certification with the US FAA. Serial production of the aircraft has also started at Leonardo's Philadelphia final assembly line.
Sunick: “Well, I'll tell you, for Leonardo we believe in the capability, we believed in the, the need, right? And you, you look through across history – mankind has always wanted to go faster, right? Always wanted to have improvements in performance, right? So, in our helicopters, we're kind of limited, you know, in speeds, haven't really increased appreciably and then, you know, physics and aerodynamics really limit that, right? The tiltrotor is a very, very efficient configurations to allow an increase in speed in a vertical lift platform for commercial use. Along with that, you know, AW609 aircraft, so now we're really starting to fully exploit, you know, the, the, what I would call the twin turboprop configuration on the aircraft, right? When it's flying out as a fixed wing aircraft flying. Very, very similar to a twin turboprop.
“So now we're going to be cruising at altitude, right? You're 20,000 to 25,000 feet. So, you're cruising above obstacles obviously, but also above bad weather systems, right? And you're going, you know, directly, you know, point to point where right, without having to go circuitous routes around obstacles or lower to, and things like that. And you also have air speed advantages at altitude. So, there's a lot of great dividends now by really, really exploiting the configuration. So that’s, you know, Leonardo solve this and solve a demand from our customers and very, very, very excited right now as momentum is, is really increasing on the program. Our final, our final demonstrator aircraft that we have is it should be doing now, one of its last rotor turns today if the weather cooperates here, which it seems winter is coming early in the East coast of the United States here.
“So, a little bit of a challenge there, but we're, we're wrapping up our final ground tests of that, that is production representative so that aircraft will demonstrate all the improvements we made to the aircraft. And really just I think finalize a lot of things, you know, with regard to the FAA on this airframe, you know, obviously it's the airframe has been flying a lot, but what we're really hasn't been talked about a lot. The program being started some time ago when we took ownership of the program in late 2011 something that we did – I don't think we talk enough about it – we also did a lot of critical thinking about where the aircraft was in its development. Also, what new emerging systems and technologies were out there. As well as the, the type of capability we want come time of certification. So, we were really at a crossroads, right? We could have continued with the existing design, but what we did instead was decided to embark upon a whole another development program really for this aircraft to really, really inject, technologies and capabilities in the aircraft that have a very, very robust design come time certification.”
In February 2018 Leonardo announced that helicopter transport operator Era Group will become the civil launch customer of the tiltrotor.
Era has ordered two of the aircraft in a nine-passenger utility configuration, with both scheduled for delivery next year and to be reserved for multi-mission services. The OEM has also signed several other MOUs with helicopter operators to explore civil applications for the AW609.
Sunick: “Era helicopters is our launch customer. I'm excited and working closely with them. You know, Era’s got a very, very robust portfolio across all the market segments that we're looking at. So, VIP corporate transport, search and rescue and emergency medical services as well as offshore resources development. So, all the missions that we're charting for the, for this aircraft Era flies and we'll really enjoy working closely with them and they're excited about the capability to share preference.”
Leonardo has consistently said that it has interest in over 50 aircraft worldwide but hasn't revealed a definite list price for the aircraft. Mirroring the V-22, the civil tiltrotor has also had a long gestation with certification activities ongoing.
Sunick: “Yeah, I, I can't give an exact timeline, but, but I'll tell you, we're, we're getting close, as I said before, and momentum is rapidly building and as well as excitement, right? As you know, introducing world's first commercial tiltrotor and for the FAA, their first powered lift aircraft, this is a brand-new category for them, the first and many, many decades. So, as we're chatting before, you know, we've got some big things that we're working, you know, getting this final production representative demonstrator flying, which we hope to be very, very soon. And then our full flight simulator, I expect to arrive here in six months. That's a full a dome simulator, full motion and whatnot. Our partners at CAE are, putting together, right now so we are very, very focused on quality and safety here and, and working with our partners the FAA, and I tip my hat to them. They've gotten an awesome responsibility of introducing this brand-new category. And so being very, very diligent in certifying the aircraft and, and getting, you know, through this process in a very methodically so, but we're excited about the capability AW609 will introduce because we're, we're convinced that it will improve lives through, you know, the ability to go far, fast in a vertical lift aircraft.”
Leonardo has positioned the civil tiltrotor within the luxury and civil emergency services communities. Once certified, the AW609 will become the first powered lift civil platform to enter the market. Meanwhile, V-22 production and upgrades continue bolstered by new operators, the US Navy and Japan.
The future of the tiltrotor as a war fighting machine now centres on Bell’s development of the V-280 tiltrotor for the US Army’s FVL programme. Its partner on the V-22 programme, Boeing, has opted to pursue another rotorcraft configuration entirely for FVL, the coaxial compound.
In choosing a replacement for its thousands of Black Hawk helicopters, the US Army faces a choice that will have deep ramifications on the future of the industry. That's next time on Revolutions in Vertical Flight.
Revolutions in Vertical Flight is brought to you in partnership with Bell - a huge thanks for their support. Thanks also to the Royal Aeronautical Society, the Vertical Flight Society and the Arthur Young Society for their assistance and access to their archives, as well as to Elfan Ap Rees and all the staff at the Helicopter Museum.
Revolutions in Vertical Flight was written and produced by Tony Skinner with script assistance by Gerrard Cowan and audio edits by Noemi Distefano. And I'm your narrator, Gennifer Becouarn. Until next time.
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