September 10, 1998

Bell 609: For $10 Million, You Get A Plane And A Copter

By Chris Genna,
Contributing Editor

Farnborough, England - Bell Helicopters brought a full-size mockup of its 609 Tilt-Rotor - and an order book - to the Farnborough International Air Show.

The Textron subsidiary didn't announce any new orders beyond the 68 committed to by 40 customers, but it wasn't because Don Barbour, director of 609 marketing, didn't try.

Barbour, briefing the press on the 609's capabilities today, spoke with a Porsche salesman's verve about the 11-seat twin-turbo he says will revolutionize corporate travel, offshore rig supply, emergency medical transport and search and rescue.

The 609 is the civilian spin-off of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey. Its two Pratt & Whitney-Canada PT6 engines -- nacelles, three-blade rotors and all - pivot up at the ends of its 33-foot wing span for vertical takeoff and landing, then forward for cruise like any other turboprop light twin.

So you can think of it either way, Barbour said: as an airplane with a runway requirement just longer than its 44-foot length, or a helicopter with a 275-knot speed, 25,000-foot ceiling, and 750-mile range.

Its unique capabilities make it an ideal corporate transport, Barbour said, especially if you factor in the boss' lost time driving to the airport, or worse - operating both a helicopter and twin turboprop.

And with the opportunities presented by Global Positioning System navigation and "free flight" air traffic control, direct flights will mean even less time wasted. So it's no surprise to Barbour that "it's highly anticipated in the corporate world."

Other customers want to use the 609 to ferry workers to offshore rigs in the North Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and Southeast Asia.

In the search and rescue role, it can cover the search area with the speed that now requires a fixed-wing plane, yet drop into a hover and lower a sling or basket from a 600-pound capacity hoist - a job now done only with a copter.

As an air ambulance, it can land at the scene of a car wreck, take two stretcher patients head to toe in its cabin with room for medical personnel beside them, and race them to any hospital with a helipad.

There are some serious infrastructure problems, Barbour acknowledged.

Bell is working with the Federal Aviation Administration, Canadian CAA, and European JAA to stop the bureaucratic head-scratching and get the craft certified in a new "powered lift" category rating; pilots will have to get rated in this new category; and downtowners who want no part of a helicopter's noise will have to be convinced the tilt-rotor is a good neighbor

That last should be no problem. Recalling the UH-1 Huey's infamous "Whop whop whop," Barbour said the 609 "is the quietest Bell ever made." Its 26-foot-diameter rotor/props are "slow, quiet thrust machines." And the 609's hover capability is so good, it's approach so steep, that the noise footprint is very small.

The 609's 40 customers come from 17 nations, Barbour said - just less than half in North America, 20 percent in the Middle East or Africa, and the rest in Asia.

The 609's heritage extends much further back than the V-22 Osprey. The company has been flying the similar-size XV-15 since 1977. It built an XV-3 for the U.S. Army to evaluate in the 1950s. In that craft, wingtip rotors were driven by shafts from a fuselage-mounted engine; only the rotor shafts tilted, and the control linkages were a nightmare.

"This has been in our minds for a long time," Barbour said. "But we couldn't do it till now." Now is when composite materials and fly-by-wire and engines with a healthy reserve of power became available.

Fly-by-wire technology makes it possible for a sideways movement of the stick to produce a bank - in cruise flight, by deflecting ailerons; but in the hover, by making a cyclic pitch change. "There's nothing between the stick and the control surfaces but a computer," Barbour quipped.

And power? Well, Barbour said, if an engine failed at the most critical point, entry to a hover, the remaining engine could supply both rotors with enough power to give the pilot his choice: either enter the hover and land on the pad, or resume cruise flight and return 200 miles to a STOL-type running landing.

An engine failure in cruising flight would be almost unnoticeable, Barbour indicated, especially below 16,000 feet -- the 609's 25,000-foot ceiling on two engines drops to 16,000 on one engine.

Moreover, an engine failure doesn't require a 4-5-step emergency procedure, Barbour indicated. A through-the-wing drive shaft interconnection "makes in invisible to the propellers where they get their torque."

Bell will sell the 609 for $8 million-$10 million in 1996 dollars. But its committed customers will have to wait: First flight is planned for fall of 2000 and the first delivery in the spring of 2002.

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