Growing Pains Of The Tiltrotor Program

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Bell's Commercial Tiltrotor Flies For First Time ...

On March 10, the Bell/Agusta Aerospace 609 (BA609) achieved its maiden flight at Bell's Flight Research Center in Arlington, Texas. The BA609 hovered at an altitude of 50 feet, performed left and right peddle turns, both forward and aft flight maneuvers, four take-offs and landings, nacelle position changes and stability testing for 36 minutes before setting down. The first flight follows seven weeks of ground runs and taxi testing for the BA609 conducted at the Center. "The first flight of the BA609 is truly an historic occasion," said Bell Helicopter Chairman and CEO John Murphey.

With its rotors in the vertical position, the tiltrotor is able to takeoff, land and hover like a traditional helicopter. When the rotors are tilted forward to the horizontal position, the aircraft is able to fly similarly to a turboprop fixed-wing airplane. The transition from helicopter mode to airplane mode takes 20 seconds, as does the transition from airplane mode to helicopter mode.

Bell/Agusta claim the near-300-knot BA609 will be used in a wide variety of commercial and civil operations ranging from offshore oil exploration to corporate transport, emergency medical service and small air-carrier operations. It seats six to nine passengers and is expected to be certified by the FAA in 2007, with first deliveries to begin immediately following the certification. Bell/Agusta will produce a total of four prototype tiltrotor aircraft for flight-testing. Final assembly for production aircraft will take place at Bell's Amarillo, Texas, facility, with another assembly line to be established at the Agusta plant in Italy. The company claims it has secured nearly 70 advance orders from customers around the world.

... While Its Military Brother is Temporarily Grounded

While the 609 has finally sprouted wings, its military counterpart was grounded for a few days. U.S. defense officials halted testing of the V-22 "Osprey" tilt-rotor aircraft in early March to replace faulty hydraulic lines. The Osprey, built by Boeing and Bell, resumed flight tests in May 2002 after the $40 billion program was grounded in December 2000 after two crashes that killed 23 Marines. The Bell-Boeing joint venture team first noticed a problem with the titanium tubes in December 2002, and has since certified alternate suppliers. Replacement tubes have started arriving and are being installed on the Ospreys used for testing. Engineers discovered the original titanium tubes failed at around 1,000 flight hours during testing, although they were designed to last for about 10,000 flight hours.