“Let me be straight with you. What I'd rather have is an airplane. We just had a third kid. I don't like flying commercial. I like to take my family to Hawaii. When I go east, I'd like to have pilots I know. ”
If legendary sports car builder Enzo Ferrari had designed a helicopter, this would have been it: the Italian-made Agusta A109 light twin.
First conceived in 1967, the 109 was Agusta's first clean-sheet-of-paper product (although the company had been successfully building helicopters under contract and designed by others, most notably Bell, for years). Like the 1968 Ferrari Daytona, the 109 had all the hallmarks of classic Italian design: sleek and slippery styling that made it look fast even when it was sitting on the ramp, nimble handling, amazing speed and ingenious integration of new technologies and materials. And there were also a few traditional drawbacks: idiosyncratic maintenance requirements and interior ergonomics best suited to adolescents. So what? It was fast.
Agusta merged with Britain's GKN Westland Helicopters in 2000 and the entire company became a subsidiary of Agusta's parent firm, the Italian Finmeccanica Group, in 2004. Over the years Agusta has made many refinements and improvements to the 109, culminating with the introduction of the stretched-cabin 109S "Grand" in 2004. Last summer, American pilots Scott Kasprowicz and Steve Sheik set an around-the-world helicopter speed record in a stock Grand (no auxiliary fuel tanks or other special equipment): 11 days, seven hours and two minutes for an average speed of 84.9 mph, which includes ground time. Like I said, fast.
Getting the first 109s to market was another matter. After protracted gestation-Agusta first started looking at building its own light helicopter in the 1950s-deliveries of the "A" model began in 1976. The "A" featured a pair of 420-shp Allison (now Rolls-Royce) 250-C20B turbine engines and a high-speed, four-blade main rotor system.
The A109 quickly became one of the most popular rides for the rotor-borne executive set. A U.S. distributor took out an option for 100 units and, for a time, Britain's RAF even used it to transport the royal family and other VIPs. Law enforcement, search and rescue, military and air ambulance variants also were developed over the years. Today more than 540 A109s are operating worldwide.
Upgrades have included up-rated engines and transmissions; better avionics; improved hydraulic, drive-shaft and rotor systems; redesigned maintenance access panels and tail boom; beefier landing gear; single-pilot IFR capability; sliding cabin doors for utility and military operators; and external hard points for anti-tank missiles. (No, that last add-on was not a factory option available to the general public. But what a handy way to clear a landing zone.)
In 1997, Agusta launched the A109E "Power." An AgustaWestland spokesman insisted that the Power is not a variant of the original 109 family; instead, it's an entirely new helicopter that "differs in all aspects from all of the A109 models previously produced since 1971," the year Agusta first manufactured a 109 prototype.
However, while there are numerous differences, the Power does still look like the original A109 and all models are approved under the same type certificate, albeit with a slew of amendments. Although not exactly capacious, the cabin in the Power is slightly larger, the avionics are more modern and the engines are more powerful. The instrument panel was updated with a six-screen LCD display. Customers had a choice of two engines for the Power: Pratt & Whitney P206 or the Turbomeca Arrius. The Pratts, while notorious for belching soot all over the tail boom, were otherwise fine under most circumstances but the Turbomecas did provide slightly more power for operating in high/hot conditions, such as mountain flying in the summer. Either way, customers got 25-percent more takeoff power (some 1,300 shp) than with the Allison 250s in the original 109s and a maximum cruising speed of 154 knots. Fast.
Beginning in 2002, the U.S. Coast Guard used that speed to chase down drug smugglers in go-fast boats. Under a program called HITRON, for Helicopter Interdiction Squadron, the Coast Guard leased eight Powers they designated MH-68 "Stingrays." It equipped them with machine guns, laser-sited sniper rifles, stun guns and entanglement nets. The program was an enormous success, forcing smugglers to devise alternative methods.
The larger marketplace also embraced the helicopter; AgustaWestland has received orders for more than 470 AW109E Powers from 50 nations. Almost half of these were for aircraft customized for executive transport. In this configuration, the Power remains largely unchanged from the original 109s; two pilot positions up front-although it can be flown well with one-and two facing benches behind with room for four to five passengers. With a full complement of fuel, the Power has a ferry range of 440 nautical miles and a useful load of 1,287 pounds. Of course, most executive helicopter flights last less than 30 minutes, requiring nowhere near full fuel. Typically laden with passengers, a Power has a range of 260 nautical miles and can stay in the air for slightly less than two hours with a 30-minute reserve.
The bench seats are a tad cramped for longer trips and tall pilots find the cockpit somewhat confining-but that rap applies to most helicopters in this class. AgustaWestland did attempt to improve passenger ergonomics by subsequently offering the Power Elite model, which provides better rear bench pitch at the expense of slightly less fuel capacity. An extended 34-cubic-foot cargo-hold option is also available, but passengers still need to pack light.
Some of Italy's leading design houses, including Pininfarina and Versace, have designed upscale interiors for the Power and there is room for a beverage drawer and small-scale in-flight entertainment components. Window views are generous and the air-conditioning system is accordingly robust. Enhanced soundproofing and a cabin step are popular after-market options.
The AW109E's small, retractable wheeled landing gear makes it easy to maneuver on the ground but can limit it to landings on paved surfaces as opposed to wet turf or mud, where the wheels can sink in.
Pilots generally love the way the AW109E handles, praise its ability in instrument conditions and like all that extra engine power.
Passengers seem enamored with the style, if not completely satisfied with the ergonomics. Parts and support are less of an issue than you might imagine, as AgustaWestland assembles helicopters at its U.S. plant in Philadelphia. The 109E will require more maintenance than competing models in its class.
While not inexpensive to operate, it is 20 knots faster than anything comparable and that speed gives it better numbers overall (see chart on previous page). Besides, we're talking Ferrari here, not Honda Accord. With the AW109E, you fly fast and arrive in style.