Will tiltrotors ever change the face of the helicopter charter market?
Whilst tiltrotor aircraft may look futuristic, the concept is by no means a new one. The first conceptual design resembling the modern tiltrotor was patented in 1930 and various functional prototypes followed throughout the 1950’s and 60’s.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s that tiltrotor designs began to pick up serious momentum with aircraft manufacturers as a viable alternative to the helicopter. Making its maiden flight in 1989, the Bell-Boeing V22 Osprey was designed exclusively for military use. The complexity of developing the world’s first production tiltrotor meant many years of development and testing, but the aircraft finally went into service in 2007, with over 200 of the aircraft having been built to date.
With a 9-ton payload and a cruise speed of 280mph, the V22 undoubtedly demonstrated the potential of the tiltrotor in a wide variety of civilian applications.
What makes it any different to a helicopter?
A tiltrotor has one or more rotors powered by rotating engine pods which are attached to the end of fixed wings. The aircraft combines the vertical lift capabilities of a helicopter with the speed and range of conventional fixed wing aircraft.
A tiltrotor can carry out a vertical take-off and landing on rough terrain without a runway, and as it relies on a fixed wing for lift during horizontal flight, is capable of cruise speeds of over 280mph, 100mph more than typical helicopters. Operating altitudes in excess of 20,000ft, double that of a standard helicopter, are also easily achieved.
The trade-off for this impressive performance over helicopters is generally overall payload, however in most applications this is far outweighed by the vastly improved response time and equally versatile landing and take-off abilities of the tiltrotor.
The enormous potential is clear to see, with boundless applications in the civilian space where tiltrotors would surpass the operational capabilities of helicopters.
Some aircraft manufacturers have recognised this potential for some time and in the late 1990’s development began on the AgustaWestland A609 TiltRotor. The manufacturer cited the aircraft as a direct response to the demands of oil and gas companies as they moved their exploration further offshore. The corporations required aircraft with sufficient range for personnel and cargo movements. With a range of 1400km, a payload of 2.5-tons and space for 9 passengers, the AW609 certainly seems to offer such a solution.
When it goes into production in 2017, the AW609 is likely to compete with helicopters for air cargo charter requirements where timescales are sensitive, vertical take-off and landing is required and the distances covered are large.
The aircraft will also become the optimum solution for humanitarian relief and disaster response agencies worldwide, opening up remote, undeveloped regions which may have previously demanded airdrop operations. Search and rescue teams around the globe are likely to be interested in the improved response time that the aircraft offers over helicopters.
Air charter specialists servicing these agencies will be keen to offer the AW609 as a choice solution in key emergency situations, and they are likely to face demand almost as soon as the aircraft is available.
AgustaWestland has also touted the aircraft as a competitor to executive helicopters, turbo-props and even business jets, as the compromise between take-off versatility and time of arrival is vastly reduced. If this proves to be the case, there is potential for a knock on effect in the helicopter and private jet charter industries, as user demand increases and operators scramble to offer the AW609 in the executive space.
Whilst the mechanical and operational complexity of the tiltrotor is likely to mean increased running costs over helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, it’s entry to the civilian space will undoubtedly have a substantial impact on key areas of the air charter industry as we know it.
For decades, helicopters have reigned as first choice for operations that are unsuitable for fixed wing aircraft. Perhaps this won’t always be the case.
AgustaWestland AW609 TiltRotor – Copyright Agusta Westland
v22 Osprey courtesy of Matt Morgan
Line Drawing V22 Osprey courtesy of Jetijones
AW609 courtesy of Klaus Nahr