A Well-timed Winner: Leonardo AW189

This super-medium helicopter, which recently became available in executive configurations, offers a smooth ride and a spacious interior.

As the saying goes, timing is everything. And timing is a big part of the story behind the Leonardo AW189 twin-engine, super-medium helicopter. 

It began in 1998. Leonardo’s precursor company, Agusta, entered into a joint venture with U.S.-based Bell to develop a medium twin helicopter, the AB139. Formed in Italy in 1923, Agusta began manufacturing helicopters under license from other manufacturers—most notably Bell in 1952—and started developing its own indigenous model, the Agusta A109 light twin, in the late 1960s. It then merged with Britain’s Westland Helicopters in 2000 to form AgustaWestland, which was rebranded as Leonardo Helicopters in 2017, a nod to Italian inventor and artist Leonardo da Vinci. 

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 Airbus Helicopters and Sikorsky. As a business strategy, it was brilliant.

There was just one problem: Bell was already married to Boeing on the development of the military V-22 "Osprey" tiltrotor, a program mired in technical delays that was rapidly sucking up billions of dollars in development cash. Over the years, the V-22 has grown into a $36 billion program with more than 400 delivered to date. It represented huge money, while the then $8 million-per-copy AB139 was merely nice money. Huge money won out. Bell bailed on the AB139, directing resources from that project to the V-22. Agusta took full control and renamed the AB139 the AgustaWestland AW139. 

It proved a solid decision. The helicopter first flew in 2001. Deliveries began in 2003 and more than 1,100 have since been turned over to customers. The AW139 is one of the most popular twin-turbine helicopters of all time and can be configured for a variety of missions, including executive/VIP, offshore, air ambulance, law enforcement, search and rescue, aerial firefighting, and military. 

In 2006, AgustaWestland (now Leonardo) announced plans to develop a larger derivative of the AW139 aimed exclusively at the military market. The AW149 is 12 feet longer, four feet taller, and 5,000 pounds heavier than the AW139. It first flew in 2009 and since has been adopted by militaries including the Egyptian navy and Thai and Polish armies. This limited success prompted the company to look to the civil market, specifically the offshore energy field, and offer it a demilitarized variant of the AW149, designated the AW189. Deliveries of that variant began in 2014, and the timing was spot-on.  

Chaos at Competitors

The following year, defense conglomerate Lockheed Martin bought Sikorsky, primarily a manufacturer of military helicopters, including the ubiquitous Black Hawk (more than 5,000 built since 1979). The acquisition prompted speculation that it wouldn’t be long before Sikorsky would deemphasize its civil offerings, including the S-92A, a heavy model that is popular with deep-water offshore operators and utilized worldwide by heads of state. 

The concerns proved prophetic. As of this writing, both Sikorsky’s smaller S-76 and the S-92A are essentially out of production. And about the same time that Lockheed Martin bought Sikorsky, Airbus began experiencing fatal crashes tied to flaws in the gearboxes of its H225 series of heavy civil helicopters. The accidents led to a temporary worldwide grounding of that fleet in 2016 and a passenger safety stigma that continues to overhang the model to this day, even though Airbus took comprehensive corrective measures. 

Meanwhile, the development of Bell’s entry into the super-medium space, the model 525, stalled, after a fatal crash of a prototype in 2016 (although that aircraft should be certified later this year). And while Airbus began deliveries of its H175 super-medium in 2014, to date that model has gained limited traction, delivering an average of just eight per year during its initial six years of production. 

Conversely, approximately 80 Leonardo AW189s are now in service, primarily with offshore operators but also with various government agencies and coast guards. And now, that aircraft can be outfitted in various VIP and executive configurations via Leonardo’s Agusta luxury brand, which the company launched in late 2021. Moreover, support plans can be purchased via the “Agusta for You” menu of custom-tailored completions, maintenance, and operational solutions. Maintenance plans under the program cover scheduled and unscheduled events nose-to-tail for both airframe and avionics. 

Leonardo continues to evolve its Agusta brand, with plans to roll out dedicated helicopter service centers in the coming years. The first location likely will be in Europe with additional ones to be added across the globe. In the U.S., Leonardo’s Philadelphia facility supports the AW189. 

The helicopter’s spacious 396-cubic-foot cabin can be configured to seat 19 passengers in utility configuration or typically eight to 14 in comfortable executive/VIP layouts. The baggage hold is a generous 85 cubic feet. The model is available with two engine choices, the GE CT7-2E1 or the more powerful Safran Aneto-1K. Helicopters equipped with the latter are designated AW189Ks and feature 550 more shaft horsepower each (maximum continuous power), better high-altitude/high-temperature performance, and a 660-pound increase in maximum gross weight, to 18,960 pounds. But that extra power comes at the expense of reduced range, down to a maximum of 460 nautical miles (no reserves with auxiliary fuel tank), compared with 651 nautical miles with the GE engines. Maximum cruise speed with either engine is 159 knots. The five-bladed main rotor system delivers a smooth ride for a helicopter of this size and is relatively compact, with a diameter of 47 feet, 11 inches. The main gearbox has a 50-minute run-dry capacity if its primary lubrication system fails. 

The AW189, which is available with more than 200 certified option kits, is equipped with an auxiliary power unit. It can be operated by a single pilot and is instrument-flight-rules capable and certified for flight into known icing conditions when equipped with the full icing-protection system. The cockpit is configured similarly to those in Leonardo’s smaller AW139 and AW169, simplifying matters for pilots transitioning between the various models and reinforcing Leonardo’s “family” approach to its three largest twin-engine offerings. And this member of the family appears to have exquisite timing. 

2023 Leonardo AW189 at a Glance

Price: up to $27 million with VVIP interior

Crew: 1–2 

Passengers: up to 14 in executive/VIP configuration  

Cabin: 4.58 ft (H), 8 ft (W), 11.3 ft (L)

Baggage: 85 cu ft (external)

Maximum cruise speed: 159 kt 

Range: 563 nm*  

Avionics: Collins

Engines (2): GE CT7-2E1or 2x Safran Aneto-1K

*executive configuration, GE engines with auxiliary tank, no reserves, maximum gross weight