The AW609 emotional rollercoaster

Over the last year we’ve been closely following the developments in the AW609 programme, the world’s first commercial tiltrotor aircraft being built by the Anglo-Italian manufacturer AgustaWestland (AW).

And what a year it’s been.

In March we reported from Heli Expo that Bristow Group – the company that is responsible for the UK’s long-term search and rescue – had signed a agreement with AW to work on AW609 concept of operations and ‘configuration optimisation’.

AW609 rollercoasterThat was big news, mainly because the underlying message was Bristow’s keen interest in the tiltrotor concept and a likely future purchase for missions such as search and rescue or transporting oil workers across vast distances to deepwater rigs.

In September, the tiltrotor set a speed record flying point-to-point from the UK to Italy, making the journey in two hours and 18 minutes. Throughout this, the aircraft had also been carrying out flight tests to prepare it for certification in 2017.

All that, however, pales in comparison to the events of the last two weeks.

On 30 October, the second prototype aircraft (the same that flew the record run from the UK) crashed in Italy killing both test pilots. The aircraft, which was due to retire from flight testing next year, crashed in field as it prepared for high-speed trials.

In an era when air travel is the safest form of transport, it was a stark reminder that on revolutionary programmes such as the AW609, things can still go horribly wrong.

The accident was not only a shock to the company, but also a blow to the wider aviation industry and the geeks amongst us, who had excitedly wat2bc3ab96_U7hZjlYched the development of this unique aircraft.

So it was with some consolation this week at the Dubai Air Show that the AW609’s first customer was announced. It was revealed that the UAE’s Joint Aviation Command (JAC) would be the launch customer for the AW609 tiltrotor aircraft in SAR configuration.

This means we can expect civil tiltrotors to be buzzing around the Middle East by the end of the decade.

As our Unmanned Vehicles editor Richard Thomas pointed out in his report from Dubai, it marks a ‘ray of light’ for the programme. The AW609 programme has gone from the lowest moment in its history, to possibly the highest, in just two weeks.

Talk about an emotional rollercoaster.

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