““[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.’” ”
You may be a VIP, but if you've flown on executive helicopters, you've likely had to sit knee-to-knee with other executives on perches better suited for horse jockeys. Even the slick Sikorsky S-76-in production since the 1970s and widely considered the gold standard for corporate rotorcraft-can seem a bit confining with six adult male passengers aboard.
Granted, with enough resources, you can find ways around this problem. Billionaire Ira Rennert, owner of a notorious 39-bathroom Sagaponack, N.Y. manse, splurged for a Sikorsky S-92A Helibus. The $25 millions-plus conveyance seems better suited for heads of state or landing forces than for private individuals. It's capacious, yes, but the rotor wash does a real job on the yard and the noise profile could produce enough work for a large team of lawyers.
So what do you do if you don't want your comings and goings turned into a legal brief but still need a comfortable cabin big enough for seven to eight passengers?
The AgustaWestland AW139 could be your answer. The $14 million (new) medium twin is bigger and more powerful than an S-76 and smaller and less expensive than an S-92. And with a cruising speed of 165 knots, it is faster than both of them. "But wait," I hear you say. "This helicopter is Italian. Granted, they make pretty machines like Ferraris and Lamborghinis, but they know even less about ergonomics than...horse jockeys."
Not so fast. First of all, the stereotype doesn't apply to Italian aircraft. Piaggios are made in Italy and they have some of the biggest cabins in the business. Second, the AW139 isn't a purely Italian design. It began life in 1998 as the AB139, a joint venture by Agusta and U.S.-based Bell Helicopter. The two companies had successfully collaborated for decades, mainly with Agusta building Bells and Bell parts under license. The AB139 was poised to be the first of several joint ventures, including the BA609 civil tiltrotor-new niche machines that were going to generate "category killer" competition against less-capable smaller products and more expensive larger ones, from both Eurocopter and Sikorsky. As a business strategy, it was brilliant.
There was just one little problem: Bell was already married to Boeing on development of the military V-22 "Osprey" tiltrotor, a program mired in technical delays that was rapidly sucking up tens of billions of dollars in development cash. The V-22, currently with a unit price closing in on $90 million (2005 dollars), represented huge money, while the then $8 million AB139 was merely nice money. Huge money won out. Bell bailed on the AB139, directing those resources to the V-22. Agusta took full control, bought Britain's Westland Helicopters and renamed the AB139 the AgustaWestland AW139.
It proved a solid decision. The helicopter first flew in 2001. Deliveries began in 2003 and nearly 400 have since entered service. While originally designed for the parapublic market-police, air ambulance, coastal patrol and offshore-oil support-the AW139 is gaining popularity as an executive transport and more than 60 have been sold in this configuration. Spaciousness is obviously the main reason. The cabin offers 282 cubic feet and is nearly nine feet long, more than seven feet wide and almost five feet tall. That means it's bigger than the cabin on some light business jets and much bigger than the one on the Bell 412 or Sikorsky S-76. The externally accessed baggage hold is 120 cubic feet-three times bigger than the one on a Hawker 800 business jet.
Most of the used AW139s on the market aren't in executive livery, so you may need to find a completion center to transform the one you buy. The Mercaer Aviation Group (MAG), with facilities adjacent to plants in Philadelphia and Italy that make the AW139, has done more than 50 executive and VVIP completions of the helicopter. Costs depend on the materials selected and the amount of engineering and certification required, but the average ranges from $400,000 to $500,000 for an executive completion and $1 million to $1.3 million for a VVIP finish. Completions typically take eight to 20 weeks.
MAG offers executive and VIP customers up to 10 standard interior layouts for the AW139 cabin, accommodating five to 10 passengers, as well as quick-change options that can add or subtract seats or various widths, given varying loads. MAG says the most requested configuration is with eight seats-two VVIP forward-facing chairs and six corporate-class seats, four of which are forward-facing and two of which are aft-facing. However, some ultra-plush layouts feature only five VVIP seats.
Customers can choose from a wide range of cabinetry. The oval credenza option features a pop-up, swiveling flat-screen entertainment monitor. The monument also has storage space for satellite telephones; plug-in devices such as iPods and other MP3 players; and snacks and beverages. MAG uses LED lighting with dimmable controls. Passenger windows can be tinted to various degrees and/or equipped with manual or electrically actuated and controlled window shades. MAG also has developed an integrated, fully customizable in-flight entertainment and cabin-management system that's ideally suited for the AW139. Called the In-Flight Entertainment Enhanced Lounge, it can control audio, video, communications, passenger settings and cabin function.
Another MAG-developed system, called SILENS, minimizes cabin noise and vibration levels and allows normal conversations without use of headsets. During flight tests at 140 knots, the system reduced cabin noise from 76 to 71 dB (speech interference level) SIL4. Replacing the sliding cabin doors with optional hinged doors also will decrease cabin noise. The helicopter's five-blade main rotor design naturally minimizes noise and vibration.
It also helps to reduce pilot fatigue. Thanks to its highly automated cockpit, the AW139 can be flown single pilot. A new rotor-blade ice-protection system introduced last year (and available as an add-on option to older aircraft) facilitates IFR operations in some of the worst weather. AW also now offers a kit that increases the 139's maximum gross weight from 12,800 to 13,600 pounds. Full-seats range is an impressive 460 nautical miles. The AW139 has nearly twice as much shaft horsepower as the Bell 412 and the S-76, giving it impressive high/hot and single-engine capabilities. However, with a main rotor diameter of 45.28 feet, its footprint is actually smaller than the 412's 46 feet and only slightly larger than the S-76's 44 feet. It really is an Italian spacecraft.