““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
For decades, the Sikorsky S-76 has been the gold standard in corporate helicopters. With more than 800 sold since its introduction in 1979, the model combines futuristic styling with a large cabin, speed and solid all-weather capabilities. Other helicopters, notably the Bell 430 and Eurocopter EC155, have attempted to challenge Sikorsky's dominance in this niche with competing products. While competent, however, they are mere pretenders to the throne—stretched, upgraded variants of smaller machines. Nothing has come close to the S-76's holistic sense of elan, glamour and A-list imprimateur.
Meet AgustaWestland’s AW169.
Announced in 2010, this downsized version of AgustaWestland’s wildly popular midsize AW139 is closing in on certification this year and has the S-76 firmly in its sights. Size wise, the two helicopters are virtually identical, and they share a variant of the same engine, the 1,000-shaft-horsepower-class Pratt & Whitney Canada PW210. But that is where the similarities end.
The S-76 soldiers on with virtually the same airframe it came to market with in 1979, with the same cabin dimensions and undersized baggage compartment. Sikorsky announced the latest variant, the S-76D, in 2005 and is just starting to make customer deliveries now while still adding certified capabilities. Due in part to its long gestation period, the layout of the Thales TopDeck avionics suite in the S-76D, while extremely functional and capable, seems dated. It’s sort of like ordering a new car and discovering an eight-track-tape slot in the dash instead of a Bluetooth connection for your music player.
In the aircraft development business, five years can make a big difference. And this is where the AW169 has the advantage. Thanks to the strategic use of composites, including a revolutionary thermoplastic tailplane, the AW169 is lighter than the S-76D; its passenger cabin is longer and wider and its baggage compartment is almost 25 percent larger.
The avionics feature three of the latest 10-by-eight-inch Rockwell Collins displays mated to touchscreen controls with all the newest capabilities, including night-vision-goggle compatibility, a four-axis digital automatic flight-control system and a dual flight-management system, digital maps, weather radar, satcom, traffic and terrain avoidance, dual radar altimeters, ADS-B aircraft-tracking technology, enhanced vision and a health and usage monitoring system (HUMS). The model also features IFR LPV (instrument flight rules, localizer performance with vertical guidance) capability and a terrain-awareness warning system for operations in the most challenging weather. AgustaWestland’s optional full-icing protection system (FIPS), which has been popular on the AW139, should provide additional safety during inclement weather.
The manufacturer expects the AW169 to be certified for single-pilot IFR operations.
Aircraft condition and maintenance data from the HUMS system is fed into AgustaWestland’s 24/7 logistics center near Milan, Italy, where a team works with operators to address problems and get helicopters back into the air. Since the center opened in 2010, time required to resolve a customer-service request has been halved.
For years, the rap on the company was that it fell down on customer support, but in the latest product-support survey by our sister publication, Aviation International News, AgustaWestland placed ahead of Sikorsky and Eurocopter and second only to Bell, a demonstration of enormous progress. Product support will be further enhanced for North and South American customers when the manufacturer starts building 169s at its Philadelphia plant in 2015. AgustaWestland Philadelphia CEO Bill Hunt told me last year that his facility plans on ramping up production to 20 AW169s a year by 2017. (This is in addition to the AW169s produced at the company’s main plant in Italy.) The Philadelphia operation has experienced rapid growth in recent years, currently employs 500 and maintains assembly lines for the AW139 and AW119. Hunt said that the facility is taking an increasingly active role in sourcing parts for all AW models, further decreasing customer wait times.
Improved support will make AW169 operations easier and so will common elements in its cockpit. It is designed with many similarities to the AW139 and the larger, super-medium AW189, allowing pilots trained on one aircraft to easily transition to the other two. This is part of AgustaWestland’s strategy of creating a family of helicopters within the medium twin-engine class to service customers across a wide spectrum, including parapublic, military, EMS, search and rescue, shuttle, law enforcement, utility, executive and VIP.
AW169 performance is top-notch, besting the S-76D in hover capabilities and tying it by nearly all other measures. Maximum speed is 155 knots; range with full fuel and 30-minute reserve is 366 nautical miles; and maximum useful load (passengers, bags and fuel) is 4,350 pounds. The 222-cubic-foot passenger cabin can accommodate eight to 10 people in utility configuration, eight in an executive design or six to seven in an extremely plush VIP layout. The manufacturer has worked with its longtime partner Mecaer to fashion stylish interiors featuring noise reduction, advanced cabin electronics, enormous captains’ chairs, LED lighting and high-end materials.
Newly designed dampeners inserted between the main rotor blades mitigate vibration on passengers, pilots and equipment and deliver a comfortable, jet-like ride. Another plus: though the AW169 doesn’t have an auxiliary power unit to run air conditioning and cabin electricals, power can be drawn by running one of its two engines on the ground without engaging the rotors. No more melting—or freezing, for that matter—during engine start, run-up and taxi.
So far, the market has responded positively to the AW169. The company has received orders for more than 80 of them from 38 customers in 16 countries and forecasts sales of 900 to 1,000 AW169s over the next 20 years. Given its capabilities, that estimate may actually be too conservative.
Mark Huber is a private pilot with experience in single-engine, multi-engine, turbine, amphibious, aerobatic and rotary-wing aircraft.
Viewing this report requires Adobe Reader be installed on your device. If it's not currently installed, click here to download.