Impossible Is The Wrong Word. So Is Copter.
There's no Bell/Agusta BA609 on the static line at NBAA. The
only one of these pathbreaking aircraft in the world is active on
flight test and can't be spared for shows.
"We're not actively marketing the 609 yet, anyway," a Bell rep
told Aero-News. The multinational consortium formed by the American
and Italian helicopter powers is sitting on 60 orders, with serious
money in deposit on each., and they are not actively seeking more
So the machine at the show isn't a machine at all; it's a
mockup, which becomes clear when you slip between the crew seats
and slip into the pilot's seat.
The seat you choose says a lot about where you came from. A lot
of helicopter pilots pick the right, which is a convention that
dates from the early days of the Sikorsky R-4B, where Igor Sikorsky
sat in the left seat with his hat firmly on his head and taught
military pilots to fly from the right. The convention caught
Airplane pilots generally pick the left seat. And that's the
thing about the BA609; it's a tiltrotor convertiplane, offering
some of the advantages of both a fast, pressurized twin turboprop,
and those of a traditional helicopter; and it has a few
disadvantages of each.
Soon a second BA609 will be flying: it's under assembly at the
Agusta plant. The Bell/Agusta vision has each company assembling
its own examples of the jointly developed machine for its own sales
area; the sort of cooperation that has aircraft parts going back
and forth across the globe was considered, but dismissed as
One advantage of the dual production lines is that the 60-order
backlog should be quickly reduced once the machine is certified.
But Bell/Agusta is confident about new orders once the machine
Another advantage of the multinational nature of the company
should show up once the Agusta-built 609 is completed. Bell/Agusta
has an aggressive flight test plan that will turn the seven-hour
clock difference between the two plants into an advantage, through
a masterful stroke of planning judo. Data gleaned by one site's
test flights will be reduced and analyzed by engineers on the other
site; engineers and pilots will come to work every day with some of
their work magically taken care of for them.
The path to the left -- or right, depending on your background
-- seat of a BA609 will be trodden by an elect few. To attend
training at Bell/Agusta's Alliance Airport Tiltrotor Training
Facility in Fort Worth, Texas, pilots need to bring both rotorcraft
helicopter and airplane multiengine land category and class
ratings, and a Commercial Pilot Certificate with an Instrument
Rating -- the website says in either category, but the staff on the
NBAA show floor said that instrument ratings in both categories are
required. The Bell rep also said that 1500 hours total time was
The BA609 Pilot Qualification Course includes ground, flight
simulator, and aircraft time -- at least 56 hours will be logged in
the simulator and actual aircraft. The course takes about four
weeks and ends with the successful pilot obtaining FAA Powered Lift
category Tiltrotor class commercial or ATP rating (an
owner-operator could conceivably obtain a Private
Powered-Lift/Tiltrotor, and a BA609 Type Rating.
This basic course will take about four weeks. In addition, the
Tiltrotor Training Facility will offer Powered Lift Instrument,
CFI, and CFII ratings, recurrent training, and a whole line of
maintenance courses -- after all, no technician no technology.
So, what does it feel like? I slid into the pilot's seat -- for
the record, I picked left -- of the mockup. Most of it is a
rudimentary reproduction of the planned Collins ProLine 21
avionics, but not the controls. I can easily get the feel of the
cyclic and collective. They fall right to hand where they are in a
helicopter, which is what the machine flies like in hovering
In forward flight, the
collective goes dead and the cyclic flies the machine with ailerons
and elevator; it's a normal control stick. The nacelles have
rotated into a horizontal position and the anti-torque pedals now
act as rudder pedals. Decelerating through translational lift, the
controls revert to helicopter mode; the collective comes alive. The
controls are entirely fly-by-wire.
Pilots who have flown it say that the whole process is more
natural than it sounds. The Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor works
exactly the same way. But this isn't some space-age military
technology, but a sensible business aircraft. It doesn't land on as
small or rough a site as some helicopters do, and it will cost more
to buy, fly and insure.
And it doesn't go as fast as a bizjet does. But it does fly at
impressive inter-city speeds and can still land in small enough
areas to make airports superfluous. Companies need this aircraft,
and if the production machines deliver on their promise, the order
book will explode.
It looks like it ought to be impossible, but it isn't. It also
looks like it would be extremely rewarding to fly -- but for those
of us who are not Bell/Agusta test pilots, the answer remains, not
now. Not for a little while yet.