The Bell Agusta Aerospace Company 609 is marketed as the first civilian tilt-rotor of its kind. With a range exceeding 700 miles (~1,300 km) and a service ceiling of 25,000 feet, the aircraft flies like an airplane and lands like a helicopter thanks to two nacelle mounted Pratt & Wittney PT6 turbo shaft engines delivering almost 2,000 HP each.
Size wise, we’re looking at 44 feet (13.3m) long, 15 feet (4.5m) tall, good for a maximum take-off weight a bit under 17,000 pounds (7.7 metric tons). This makes it large enough to carry up to 10 passenger and crew depending on the configuration. Bell is marketing the product at the search/rescue, law enforcement and general aviation markets.
The airframe is awaiting certification in 2010 and two test units have already made their appearance at various air shows around the world. As publisher Wilco points out, the aircraft is so new that not all of the technical details (read, envelope and performance parameters) are known at this time. Going into this review, we know that this virtual BAAC 609 makes certain assumptions in the flight model and functionality where no data was available.
This Wilco aircraft has the distinction of being the first tilt rotor aircraft in my hangar. I admit I could hardly wait for delivery. As a simmer, any aircraft that can fly like a regular twin turbo-prop and morph into a helicopter for hover and landing is quite appealing to me.
I was also curious as to how this works given that Flight Simulator doesn’t have the built-in ability to model tilt rotor aircraft. FSX can certainly model single rotor helicopters for VTOL, as well as airplanes with up to four engines. Still, it cannot do both at the same time, let alone switch from one simulation model to the other without at least loading a different aircraft.
Yet, the Bell 609 transforms from helicopter to a twin engine plane seamlessly, so how did Wilco do it? For the answer, we turn to the product manual where it is explained that the model behind the virtual BAAC 609 is that of a regular fixed wing aircraft with two engines. This is confirmed by going to the aircraft configuration file and finding that the model is using the FSX turboprop simulation engine. Internal gauge code updates position and updates the forces directly into the FSX simulation engine when the aircraft is in transition to, or fully in, helicopter mode. Dual rotors are not simulated, so the loss of one engine won’t be simulated either.
This is also confirmed by looking over some of the configuration values that Wilco put in the model, some of which are odd to fool the simulator and avoid alarms such as a stall warning as the 609 hovers, something a turbo prop doesn’t usually do. In other words, Wilco implements its own simulation mode for VTOL operations overriding the FSX simulation engine.
The product comes as a 110Mb e-commerce download from Wilco Publishing. The website allows registered users to download patches. The license key is provided by e-mail.
A CD product is also available, although this review only covers the download version. According to Wilco, the CD includes videos and other information not included in the download version of the product.
Oddly, the setup program did not identify my FSX folder on my Vista 64 system correctly, a rarity these days, but quickly fixed via a manual entry. The installer screens contain instructions for Vista users who have security problems with that operating system. I’ve learned early on that Vista 64’s User Access Control (UAC) feature and FSX do not play nice, and it’s turned off on my system so I didn’t need to follow the instructions as given.
Altogether, the Wilco package occupies a bit over 700Mb of disk real estate, and it is installed inside the aircraft folder, not the helicopter folder under FSX’s SimObject/Aircraft folder. The installer also places the documentation in a documentation folder it creates under the same SimObject/Aircraft location.
Loading the aircraft the first time prompted me to trust the gauge code. Accepting the exception permanently ensured FSX did not prompt me again on subsequent loads.
The product includes a 22 page (24 if you include the 2 full pages Wilco ads) PDF document complemented by an in-simulator checklist and reference list available from the kneepad function of the simulator. The documentation primarily focuses on setting up FSX’s axis mappings to properly control the Tilt Rotor and running in Vista with security enabled. The manual also gives a general tour of the cockpit instruments and the basic operation.
Unless you are already familiar with the instrumentation, I found the document covers topics at the overview level only, and is brief at that. Having a bit more depth would have been nice. There are no tutorials included with the product materials I received. So few aids are available to supplement the manual’s brevity.
Visuals – Exterior
The package includes 11 different liveries and several models tied to the specific function (luxury, ambulance, search/rescue and military). The key difference in the models are the interior layout, the nose probe, side door setup (air stairs / hinged), the sliding door on some models, winch, and Hellfire Missile pods holding a total of four missiles (non functional). The missile mounts pivot to the underside of the aircraft when the gear is raised.
The first thing I noticed about the aircraft is the huge nose caps on very large nacelles, and the significant diameter of the rotor assemblies. In fact, it’s not possible to position the nacelles in the horizontal position on the ground as the blades will not clear.
The visuals are very pleasing at any distance with smooth curvatures and lines, and no notable polygon problems. The reflections, especially with the self shadow feature enabled in FSX, make for a realistic look. A trip to the texture folder indicates we have an FSX model here complete with bump-maps and FSX specific rendering.
I found the overall model detail level very good. My only comment would be that some of the texture decals (such as the rescue arrows on the Coast Guard livery) were a bit pixilated. The liveries included in the product are excellent, and my favorite is the air ambulance version with a smooth paint gradient, although all paints are quite nice. Wilco has a paint kit available on their website.
The door animations are different from model to model. Some, such as the US Coast Guard, has the right door hinged on the side and a sliding door on the left. The luxury model and ambulance model have a swing down door doubling as air-stairs. Some models also have a rear luggage compartment door (Bell documentation indicates a 50 cu/ft (1.4 cu/m) storage in the rear), and the medevac/military versions have a sliding door on the port side where we also find a winch.
The model uses many flat textures inside the cabin which look odd when looking up close, and add a good ambiance from the outside when the doors are open. I found the crew and passenger figures to be superior to the usual flair we get in the virtual sky. The textures are much better in fact than most crew representations in any FSX product I have. The facial expressions and eyes in particular are quite realistic.
When parked, safety cones can be deployed around the aircraft, which also comes along with wheel chocks. The cones have a flashing beacon. The effect is purely visual as the model is quite content to roll on the ground with the cones and chocks in place if you let go of the parking brakes.
The large flaps on each wing are hinged, meaning they do not slide out. They rotate down, and the movement of these surfaces is tied to nacelle rotation, and thus go from 0 (flush) to 90 degrees (vertical). The rotation of the nacelles has 5 positions, and it’s a great sight to see the rotors transitioning through the angles.
The gear animation is also very pleasing, especially the rear assembly. The wheel mount twists on its axis to get into a stowed position. Something that wasn’t easy to animate I’m sure. Another point of detail is the rotors themselves, as each blade actually is a multi-surface blade although they are not themselves animated.
The aircraft’s top and engine exhaust areas appear suitably grimy in some places, although overall, all liveries look very pristine, especially the glaring whites of the wheel wells that give it that factory shine look.
Visuals – Interior
The Tilt Rotor does not include a 2D cockpit, although several secondary panels can be displayed as pop-ups in that view. The aircraft is designed to be flown solely from the virtual cockpit (VC), although I like the pop-ups because they make the knob rotations with the mouse so much easier than with the VC where your head always moves, and with it, the mouse cursor.
The VC had little impact on frame rates on my system, so I don’t expect that many will have issues running this VC. In fact, flying without the VC makes it very hard to maneuver the plane in VTOL mode. I found that I needed all the visibility I could get, which also means that some type of head tracking device is almost required due to the extreme difficulty in landing an aircraft this size on a small helipad. Be it on top of a building or a remote mountainous region.
Overall, the cockpit and the aircraft look factory fresh with no dirt or wear to be found. This includes the wheel wells which, in some cases, look extremely bright and antiseptic white. Even the cockpit buttons look brand new and quite shiny.
Panels, features and controls
A quick tour of the consoles in the virtual cockpit shows that everything is logically laid out. Some buttons are repeated in several places, such as lighting, which is odd (no less than three places). The manual covers the basics of the various controls, and I found there is much to discover in the front office thanks to a manual that skips over essentials such as the operation of the displays.
While the tilt rotor doesn’t implement in-depth systems modeling of the Collins Proline 21 avionics suite, all the basics are there. I expect most of it will be straightforward to the beginner armchair pilot although I wish Wilco had put a bit more effort in the systems documentation as there is functionality not covered at all, yet is implemented.
It takes a bit to learn to operate this aircraft properly. If you’ve had basic training with the default Garmin 1000 equipped Cessna 172’s instrument cluster, moving to the 609 will not be that different.
The level of detail of the cockpit is good, with the majority of knobs and switches in 3D. However, outside of some repeated controls, I found one oddity with the autopilot panel that looked like a 2D version that was in front of the 3D version and the two didn’t quite line up. That is really the only issue I found in an otherwise really nice rendition of the cockpit.
Instrumentation / Avionics
The panel includes the standard avionics and three glass displays. The pilot’s and copilot’s primary flight displays (PFD’s) are identical. The center MFD is essentially a GPS background fitted with a compass rose on top with the ability to display the engine data as an insert. Very few buttons at the bottom are functional. All displays can display the engine data, the accuracy of which I am unable to validate.
The avionics modeled include the features of the Garmin GPS as implemented in FSX, which is reused in the center panel background as well as the backup display. The left and right glass screens show normal flight parameters using modern speed/altitude bands, a compass rose and flight director data. The background on the PFD’s shows a horizon with a couple of mountains – these are for display orientation only and do not reflect what is in front of the aircraft.
If you are familiar with glass cockpits, everything is where it is supposed to be. In fact, the simplicity of the cockpit as implemented helps compensate for a huge learning curve associated with tilt rotor operations.
There is no flight management console (FMC), and basic knowledge of the default FSX Garmin GPS makes IFR flights possible without much difficulty or training. It would have been useful to have a bit more documentation on the use of the avionics, as much of it is trial and error. I didn’t find a TCAS system, not sure if one is provided in the real aircraft.
automatic pilot is helpful; all standard functions are
available, plus an altitude hold function for hover,
is unique. Hovering
this aircraft is extremely difficult, especially if you
have any wind component. Here lies the challenge of this
precision landing in VTOL mode.
A note on controls mapping
The tilt rotor pilot doesn’t control the throttles directly – that is left to the on-board computer. The pilot manipulates thrust using TLCs (thrust control levers located to the left of each seat), and the avionics in turn match this to blade pitch and engine power settings automatically. The TLCs are attached to the prop-pitch axis in FSX, which means that your throttle is actually not used at all.
I used FSUIPC to remap my controllers to fly the 609, which allowed me to use my throttle as a sort of collective, and my main joystick as the rotor angle control in a traditional helicopter setup. The rotation of the nacelles is mapped to the flaps, where flaps up represent the flight mode (0 degrees), and full down is the VTOL mode (90 degree).
The 609 includes night lighting, shown here, noting that there is no graduated lighting modeled. The rheostat is an on/off affair, and the effects are quite nice.
There is no external configuration utility for this add-on.
Checklists & Procedures
Wilco uses the FSX Kneeboard panel to display reference information in-sim. This is convenient, as this is the only spot where you can find any information related to operations and procedures, such as aircraft start-up.
Model animations, lighting & special effects
The animation set includes the usual gear, doors, missile mounts, hoist, and the standard control surfaces (except this aircraft has no flaps). I particularly noted the animation of the flight crew in the cockpit, and the rear gear retraction sequence.
For effects, we have the standard lights (which I had to adjust because my default textures are not standard, and I had very large lights). The windshield wipers work as well.
During startup, there is a pleasing plume of smoke coming off each nacelle, and the rain wash from the wheels is a nice touch on wet days. One of my favorite effects is the rotor wash in hover mode as you get close to the ground.
The operation of the hoist (winch) has a matching control panel in the center console, yet I found I was unable to make the buttons do anything (they are functional but don’t seem to act on the winch). Using the keyboard shortcuts did work. I also found a small glitch in that the cable wasn’t lined up with the winch housing.
Prefacing that I have no envelope or performance data available on the subject, the tilt rotor as Wilco implemented it in this release is very responsive, dare I say almost too responsive. This trait makes it very difficult to fly in VTOL mode. It darts forward and climbs like a rocket, slows down very quickly (by rotating the nacelles) and is relatively docile when on the ground in helicopter mode in full vertical mode.
It is extremely sensitive to the slightest touch on the controls and has a roll rate closer to that of an F16 than what I would expect of a more settled turboprop. But this is a different beast altogether. My flight testing indicates that acrobatics are quite possible with the 609 as modeled, and it wasn’t any trouble to pull a few loops or complete barrel rolls.
I found the only way to taxi safely (reasonably?) was to place the nacelles in full vertical and to use the controls to taxi forward (yes, it will also backup quite nicely, a neat bonus for this type of aircraft). Rolling take-offs or landings are short – by far the shortest of any aircraft in my fleet, including the venerable Maule or Dornier 27. In fact, a rolling take-off is totally unnecessary except perhaps for weight concerns.
A dangerous behavior the tilt rotor has is the tendency to drop like a stone if you go from full vertical to full horizontal without respecting the minimum speeds – it’s easy to fall 200’ before reaching the proper lift speed.
As mentioned above, the aircraft accelerates very quickly, from 0 to 275 in less than one minute, and slows down even quicker. It’s a great climber, especially with the rotors around 60 degrees. Efficiency in climb drops drastically at altitude, although it does respect ground effects as I tested in the Everest mission (see below). The 609 has trouble climbing above 15,000 in VTOL mode unless within about 50’ from the ground, which makes transition to normal flight the challenge of mountain rescue.
The tilt rotor’s dynamics certainly provides many thrill rides, such as approaching the landing zone at 260 knots 50 feet above ground, then yanking the nacelles to full vertical and landing softly 20 seconds later with no problems. As modeled, I would not want to be the patient on that medevac flight especially given my severe mistreatment of procedures and controls.
How realistic is this? That will not be answered until we get some insights as to how the real aircraft behaves. The BA609 is not underpowered in the least, and the aircraft as modeled certainly reflects that, with a behavior more like that of a military jet over that of the sedate airframe. That thing will most likely out run and out climb just about anything else I have with propellers within 10,000 AGL, or at least, that’s what it feels like.
I can only characterize the sound set as a curious mixture of the default turbo-prop sounds in FSX (example, engine start or stop) combined with a bit of the helicopter sound set as well (the whop-whop sound) and wind noise. The sounds don’t stand out as original, although they are mixed well. There are no crew calls or anything along those lines.
Wilco includes four delightful missions in the package, each in three flavors (day, night and IFR) and with increasing complexity. The first thing to notice is the judicious use of text to speech in the missions, where a male or female computer generated voice interchangeably guides you as you accomplish mission objectives from briefing to success.
In the first mission, you must ferry a businessman to a casino on the French Riviera, and this is a timed mission having you race between waypoints, plus you must land on narrow helipads. The second mission is to rescue crew from an off-shore drilling platform in a storm. The third mission is to supply an aircraft carrier after landing on a frigate to get the supplies. The last is a rescue near Mt. Everest, which really tests the upper altitude performance of the tilt rotor and your skill in clearing a number of obstacles to land on and what seems like very small rocks at few times.
I found out the hard way that missions should not be attempted without spending a lot of time handling the 609. There is virtually no room for error, especially when racing against time.
Yet, I had no problems with the first part of the Everest mission, and even switched to a Bell 22 helicopter to verify my scenery with other helipads or carrier decks with no problems. I haven’t solved the mystery yet and will post and update here if I find what is happening.
The product is designed to be flown exclusively from the VC. The VC does impact FPS and my system didn’t have any problems keeping up with its frame lock at 25, which worked best for my configuration.
I did note a slight drop in FPS when in VTOL mode which is not surprising as the programming takes over the default simulation engine. Overall, I found the tilt rotor to be relatively friendly to FPS compared to many other add-ons that have come across my desk.
The Wilco Tilt Rotor has easily taken the top spot in my hangar as the most flexible aircraft. This bird can go just about anywhere except land on water, it has good range and gets there at the speed of a twin engine turbo-prop with all the benefits of a helicopter.
For short to medium haul missions or just to explore scenery, it is a terrific aircraft to fly and calls for leaving the autopilot off for the fun factor. There are a few bugs here and there, but nothing major. Wilco has already released a few updates to correct some problems. We’ll also have to believe Wilco for the time being due to the absence of real world data.
modeling are not the focus in this product, so do not look for
a Collins simulator here. Instead, enjoy
operations and complexities associated with seat of the
pants flying. The
lack of depth is compensated by a VC and a set of visuals
that are well put together.
While the product comes with FSUIPC, users with the unregistered version of FSUIPC should be aware of the following: this product requires a unique mapping of controls for this aircraft, and the ability to tweak sensitivity to make VTOL operations a bit more manageable. This requires a sophisticated level of controls and calibration management in FSX if you do not wish to impact other aircraft in your fleet, a feature only available in the registered version of the FSUIPC software.
To round this up, the packages includes a terrific voice enabled mission pack that demonstrates what this aircraft can do in very appropriate settings and is guaranteed to test your piloting skills (and patience). I’m not pronouncing a final verdict on some of the less than solid helipads my aircraft landed on (or went straight through) which prevented me from completing some missions.
The Wilco Bell 609 Tilt Rotor is a novel product providing a truly unique experience in the world of Flight Simulator. While a few things could be improved, they are quickly forgotten by tilting the nacelles, jamming the thrust lever, and discovering new freedoms in the virtual skies hardly matched by any other add-on for FSX.
Editor's Note: Check out this video of a real Bell 609 departing. Courtesy of Mike Parker
What I Like About Wilco's Tilt Rotor
What I Don't Like About Wilco's Tilt Rotor
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