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7 Mar 03. Bell/Agusta Aerospace Co. said its BA 609 tilt-rotor aircraft flew at an altitude of about 50 feet (15 meters) in its first test flight. The aircraft has engines that pivot 90 degrees so it can take off vertically like a helicopter then fly horizontally like a plane.

“The first flight was flawless, the 609 performed exactly as we knew it would,” said Roy Hopkins the Bell/Agusta test pilot at the controls of the aircraft.

The company is banking on obtaining civilian transport category flight certification from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. The BA 609 has two Pratt & Whitney turboprop engines and can hold six to nine passengers, depending on its configuration. The main selling point of the aircraft is that it does not need a runway on either end of the flight.

It flies about twice the speed of a typical helicopter with comparable capacity and has a range of 750 nautical miles, much longer than a helicopter. It takes about 20 seconds for it to transition between its airplane and helicopter modes. The aircraft was jointly developed by Bell Helicopter, a Textron Inc. (NYSE:TXT – News) company and by Italy’s Agusta, an AgustaWestland company.

Bell/Agusta is looking for the BA 609 to be fully FAA certified by 2007, when it will start marketing the aircraft. It has about 70 orders — a two- to three-year backlog — for the BA 609. Some of the potential uses for the civilian tilt-rotor include serving as corporate aircraft, a rescue aircraft, and as a means of ferrying oil workers to offshore rigs, it said.

One problem for all vertical-lift aircraft, including tilt-rotors occurs during a rapid descent at low air-speed when the rotors can lose lift, causing the aircraft to crash or flip over. This dangerous flight condition is known as vortex ring state, or VRS.

Comment: The BA 609 was recently selected by the U.S. for its Deepwater Coastguard project in preference to the Northrop Grumman Fire Scout system. One problem encountered with the V-22 Osprey aircraft was the reliability of the engine’s gearbox during tilt operations. The tilting movement caused the gearbox to malfunction on a number of occasions due to oil leakage, this problem is believed to have been overcome in recent testing.

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