(CNN) — They’re called tilt-rotor aircraft. They hover like helicopters — but they fly faster and farther — like airplanes. The military has flown them for years.
Now — for the first time — a production model is on track to be approved for civilian roles such as emergency medivac flights, search-and-rescue operations and executive travel.
No airports required.
Tilt-rotors could also save precious time in the organ donation process.
For example, they could pick up a donor heart from a hospital helipad and quickly fly it directly to another hospital more than 1,000 miles away, avoiding airports altogether.
Search and rescue: A low-flying search plane can spot people on the ground, but those people must then wait for a chopper to transport them to safety. A tilt-rotor aircraft could save time — and, potentially, lives — by doing both: flying long-distance search grids and then hovering and hoisting people up from the ground.
The world’s first civilian production tilt-rotor aircraft is being built in the United States by Italian aerospace giant Leonardo.
The company says it will start building the first AW609 production model this week at its factory in Philadelphia.
If all goes as planned, the AW609 will gain Federal Aviation Administration certification by the end of this year and enter service sometime in 2020.
“The 609 represents, from a technological point of view, a breakthrough,” Gian Piero Cutillo, managing director of Leonardo Helicopters, told CNN at last month’s Helicopter Association International trade show in Atlanta.
Seating nine passengers and two crew, these unique hybrids fly thanks to turboprop propeller engines on the ends of each wing. Each engine swivels up or down, depending on whether the aircraft is hovering, landing, taking off or cruising across the sky.
Different from the military V-22 Osprey
Unlike the Pentagon’s V-22 Osprey, the world’s first production tilt-rotor aircraft, the AW609 has a pressurized cabin, allowing it to fly as high as 25,000 feet, which is comfortably above any bad weather.
Similar to the Osprey, the development of the AW609 has been touched by tragedy. The Osprey’s reputation suffered after deadly crashes in 1992 and 2000. In 2015, an AW609 prototype crashed during a flight test, killing two pilots.
“Regulators are going to look very closely at this aircraft in light of the developmental difficulties, both for the 609 and its V-22 cousin,” says Richard Aboulafia, aviation industry analyst at Teal Group. “But they’re certainly not going to certify a product that isn’t safe.”
Because this airplane-slash-helicopter is the first civilian production aircraft of its kind, the industry is entering new regulatory territory.
“We are doing this partnered together with the FAA,” Cutillo says. “We are certifying a new helicopter — but at the same time — a turboprop [airplane].”
“It’s not an easy path because we are certifying a unique product,” he says.
Leonardo has been working with the FAA to define regulations for this new type of aircraft. “During this part there is a number of obstacles and difficulties that we are meeting together,” Cutillo says. “But I’m fairly confident.”
“We are getting positive response numbers from the flight tests that we are doing,” Cutillo says. “So we are making important and significant progress.”
The first-of-its-kind comes at a high price
The AW609’s price tag is expected to be somewhere around $25 million, Cutillo says, more than twice the cost of a comparable traditional helicopter.
For Aboulafia, that premium price point makes the AW609 “a Cadillac solution looking for Cadillac customers.”
Oil-rich United Arab Emirates has placed a tentative order for three AW609s, outfitted for search and rescue.
The first US customer will be the Texas-based Era Group, which is expected to take delivery of two AW609s next year. The deal includes a dedicated training package for intensive flight instruction at Leonardo’s new tilt-rotor academy in Philadelphia.
Other customers may be in Japan, where Nakanihon Air Service has agreed to study the market for using the AW609 for aeromedical services, disaster emergency response and news coverage.
Plans for a bigger model
The AW609 will also be available as a passenger aircraft, perhaps for executives who want to avoid airports and fly directly from point to point.
If Bloomberg wants more elbow room aboard his tilt-rotor, he might be interested in a larger version of the AW609, now on Leonardo’s drawing board. Plans call for it to seat about 25 passengers.
An artist’s illustration of Leonardo’s Next-Gen Civil Tiltrotor concept aircraft.
“We are now starting a concept — a prototype — that we believe will first fly in 2023,” Cutillo says. It’s called Next-Gen; and it’s a European project that could begin production within the 2030-2035 time frame.