The AW139 is a twin-engine “medium” or “intermediate” helicopter.
The helicopter’s primary role is offshore oil and gas crew transportation and about 1/3 of AW139s are deployed into this sector. For the majority of these offshore operations the AW139 represents the most appropriate balance between weight, range, passenger capacity and operating cost. It has become the “A320” of this market.
The AW139 type is also well established in medical services (11% of the fleet) and search and rescue (15% of the fleet). The remainder of AW139s are deployed on utility (9%), VVIP (19%) and law enforcement missions (10%).
History and Development
The genesis of the AW139 was the 1973 oil and gas crisis and the consequential development of the offshore oil and gas industry in the North Sea and Canada. This created a new and strong demand for long range helicopters with high passenger seating capacity.
This requirement was recognised by the manufacturers Bell (in the US) and Agusta (in Italy). These two companies had a long history of cooperation. In the 1970s and 1980s Agusta produced many Bell “Huey” family helicopters under licence in Italy.
In 1998 Bell and Agusta formed a joint venture company (the “Bell Agusta Aerospace Company”) to develop a new design of conventional helicopter as well as a tiltrotor aircraft. These became the Bell/Agusta AB139 and Bell/Agusta BA609 respectively. The Agusta 109/119 and Agusta 129 were already in production and the name “139” was chosen.
From the outset the AB139 was specifically designed to deliver the requirements of the offshore oil and gas industry. Agusta took the lead in developing the aircraft. The first AB139 flew in 2001 and production started in 2003. In 2005, AgustaWestland bought out Bell’s interest in the aircraft and the AB139 became the AW139. In 2007 a US production line was established in Philadelphia.
The AW139 proved to be an outstanding commercial success. In 2019 the 1,000th AW139 was delivered - an incredible milestone for a commercial helicopter.
The AW139 has developed into an aircraft “family” with four variants:
|Short Nose||The original AW139/AB139.|
|Long Nose||A variant which replaced the Short Nose in production in 2007 (serial numbers 31200 onwards). The Long Nose has a 20cm fuselage extension to allow for the installation of additional system equipment.|
The change to the Long Nose was driven by SAR requirements. Extra space was needed additional space to allow installation of additional equipment such as FLIR, searchlights and additional radios.
|Enhanced Long Nose||Refers to AW139s with serial numbers 31400 to 31699 which incorporated certain airframe improvements based on experience gained from prior operation and manufacturing.|
|New Series||Refers to AW139s produced after 2015 which include all the latest improvements, including the 7,000kg MTOW upgrade.|
The first two variants are distinct design definitions identified in the type certificate. The second two variants are “trading names” for Long Nose variants.
AgustaWestland has developed two MTOW upgrade kits for the AW139 (to 6,800kg in 2009 and to 7,000kg in 2015). These upgrades are incorporated into all new production aircraft and are available as retrofits for in-service helicopters.
The Honeywell EPIC avionics system installed in the AW139 has been upgraded over the years to include new system capabilities including SAR autopilot modes, TCAS II, ADS-B and LPV approaches. These upgrades are expensive to implement. The recent “Phase Seven” upgrades cost in excess of US$500K in some cases. The latest upgrade is the Phase Eight. The high cost of avionics upgrades is relatively particular to the AW139 – for other helicopters the supply and support of the avionics is better integrated with the OEM which seems to result in cheaper upgrade costs (the much cheaper upgrade costs for AW189 avionics is an appropriate example).
We have probably reached the limits of the MTOW increases for the AW139. However operating at weights above 6.4 tonnes comes with some additional maintenance costs (see “Maintenance” below).
The AW139 is currently produced on two production lines, one in Italy and one in the USA. Leonardo has also obtained approval to manufacture in Russia [in order to focus on the oil and gas market in Russia (particularly around Sakhalin Island)]. Between 2012 and 2020 nine helicopters have been assembled in Russia.
The AW139 has a strong safety record considering the fleet total of over 2,900,000 flying hours.
The major incidents are summarised as follows and most have causes unrelated to the design or maintenance of the helicopter.
On 19 August 2011, an AW139 operating for Petrobras crashed in the sea at the Campos Basin in Brazil after taking off from an offshore oil platform, killing all four people on board. This was caused by the failure of a tail rotor blade caused by fatigue stress in the structure of the blade. Leonardo redesigned the blade and the manufacturing process to produce a new blade.
On 13 March 2014, an AW139 crashed shortly after take-off from Gillingham, Norfolk, United Kingdom, killing all four people on board due to a loss of situational awareness by the pilot.
On 29 December 2018, a United Arab Emirates EMS AW139 clipped the world's longest zip line and crashed in JebelJais, Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates, killing all four crew members.
On 2 February 2019, an AW139 operated by Caverton Helicopters carrying Nigeria's Vice president Yemi Osinbajo crash-landed in Kabba. Though there were no casualties, the closeness of the crash to the 2019 presidential election fuelled speculation of possible foul play, but Caverton attributed the crash to bad weather.
On 4 July 2019, seven people died when an AW139 crashed in the Bahamas. An investigation is ongoing regarding the cause of the incident. See article in the links below.
On 1 February 2020, an AW139 operated by the Japanese police force crashed in northeast Japan. There were injuries but no fatalities. The cause of the incident is not yet full determined, but a strong wind warning was in place at the time of the flight.
The AW139 fleet continues to slowly grow with newly manufactured units. In the last few years production has been scaled back to reflect the falling demand from the oil and gas industry.
The future of AW139 production will clearly have an impact on the future of the AW139 generally, particularly on the values of the existing fleet.
Oil and gas industry
One third of AW139’s are deployed with the oil and gas industry. The future of this marketplace is clearly of significant importance to the future of the AW139.
Lobo expects overall demand from the offshore oil and gas industry for helicopter services to be fairly static for the next 5-10 years and to then experience a gradual but permanent decline. Demand will gravitate to longer-range missions favouring helicopters larger than the AW139.
The likely outcome of this prediction for the AW139 will be a steady stream of AW139s (particularly older machines) either becoming idle or finding a role in other missions.
In the offshore sector the AW139 currently has no direct competitor but this will soon change as the H160 comes into operation. Indirect competition comes from super-mediums (AW189s, H175s (and possibly the Bell 252 Relentless) and maybe also from keenly priced S-92s.
Super-mediums and S-92s are not direct competitors to the AW139 as they are intended to focus on longer range missions. However, because we anticipate a trend towards longer range missions in the offshore sector this of itself will favour the super-mediums and S-92s.
Airbus claim that the H160 will be significantly cheaper to operate than the AW139 on comparable missions. The H160 does indeed represent a step forward in technology – it has a fully composite fuselage and various new technologies to enhance safety, comfort and performance. However, the H160 is new helicopter type and so unproven in practice. Furthermore, even if the H160 proves to clearly outperform the AW139 it would take many years for the market to transition to the new type. The H160 will be fighting the headwinds of higher capital costs and a lack of industry familiarity.
SAR, EMS and VIP
About 25% of the current AW139 fleet is deployed on SAR and EMS missions. However, these sectors are not likely to stimulate additional demand for AW139s. In SAR, requirements are limited and already fulfilled. In EMS, the helicopter is not the standard choice for most operations due to its size, but it is often selected when a long-range aircraft is required (e.g. Australia).
Only a small number of AW139s are used in a VVIP role. The helicopter will continue to see some demand in this sector, but generally speaking its size limits the appeal as it adds unnecessary extra cost and limits landing options.
The utility and parapublic market (particularly law enforcement and firefighting) represents the most likely source of demand for the AW139 outside the oil and gas industry. The AW139 could become the“Bell 412” of the 21st century. Indeed, this would be appropriate given the history of the aircraft.
The success of the Bell 412 has come from its simplicity in maintenance and operation. It remains to be seen whether the AW139 (which was purpose-designed for the offshore transportation role) can also deliver to these utility mission requirements.
In 2019 Waypoint (a leasing company) launched a reconfiguration program to convert offshore AW139s into “medium utility helicopters” (MUH) in partnership with Eagle Helicopters (Canada). The modifications were not particularly significant – they mainly involved only the removal of the offshore “airline seat” configuration and replacement with a soft-quilted “military” style interior. Only one AW139 was “converted” and the initiative faded away after Waypoint’s bankruptcy.
The AW139 is likely to remain a high-demand helicopter for at least another decade. At this stage older AW139s will probably start to fall idle. However, the possibility of a transition into a utility role could significantly extend the commercial viability of the type.
Costs and Values
AW139 running costs are comparable with other medium helicopters and lower than super-mediums or heavy helicopters.
The rental price for an AW139 is in the range of US$50K to US$95K per month. The wide range of these values is primarily a reflection of the differences between the variants.
The AW139 has recently started to trade more frequently. In 2019 about 13 deals occurred in the secondary market representing a 86% increase compared to 2018. This makes the AW139 the most liquid medium / heavy commercial helicopter. Trading values fall into a wide range of between US$3.5m and US$9.5m reflecting the variety of AW139 types on the market. Average trading values in 2019 fell by 20% when compared to 2019 values, but this is a reflection of 2019 deals being for older AW139s rather than indicating a substantial fall in base residual value.
The primary maintenance events on the AW139 are as follows:
Airframe inspections at:
- 300, 600, 1200 and 2,400hours; and
- 12, 24 and 48 months.
Engine inspections at 300, 600 and 900 hours.
The engine overhaul interval is 5,000hours.
There is no defined life limit for the AW139 airframe.
Certain operations impose involves penalties being applies to component to lives to reflect the extra strain put on the aircraft by these operations, these are described as life penalty factors in the aircraft AMPI:
- CAT A training
- Rotor starting and stopping at wind speeds above 33 knots
- External Hoist Operations
- External Load Hook Operations
- Operations above 6,400kg MTOW
Certain operations are prohibited:
- Hoist and cargo hook lifting above 6,800kg.
- Flight in icing (or limiting icing) conditions above 6,800kg.
- Using flight director modes: HOV, TDH, MOT, WTR above 6,800kg.
- Using snow skids or slump pads above 6,400 kg.
Power by the hour products
Leonardo offer two products:
- COMP – which covers all components.
- Essential Plan (EP) - which covers a limited number of components.
In certain jurisdictions COMP is rebranded as a “Parts Supply Agreement (PSA)” for tax reasons, but commercially it is the same product.
JSSI also offer an airframe parts support program.
P&W offer three products:
- Silver Lite
- Gold Lite
The “Lite” programs do not include coverage for life limited parts. The Gold product includes coverage for freight costs and attendance of a mobile repair team for an unscheduled AOG.
JSSI also offer an engine support program.
For the avionics, there is no “power by the hour” product but Honeywell offer an extended warranty on a calendar time basis. This does not cover the cost of “Phase” upgrades (see above).
 In 2000 Agusta merged with Westland to form AgustaWestland, which renamed to Leonardo in 2016.
 Aero Asset 2019 Report on Preowned Helicopter Market Trends
The Leonardo (airframe OEM) home page for the AW139:
The Honeywell (avionics provider) home page for the AW139:
The Wikipedia page for the AW139:
An in-depth look at the AW139 pre-owned market by Rotortrade.
An interview with Brad Sheen in September 2020 including market commentary on the AW139.
Announcement of an AW139 part-out project by Global Air Parts in September 2020.
Details regarding the Honeywell Phase 8 software upgrade.
Information regarding medical interior options for the AW139 available from Aerolite.
A report on the 2019 fatal crash in the Bahamas.
A report on the use of the military version of the AW139 (MH-139) by the US Air Force.
The approval of RBI Hawker as a third-party repair facility for AW139 rotor blades:
The approval of SPECTO Aerospace as a third-party repair facility for AW139 rotor blades:
An article in Vertical detailing the history of the AW139 and its strong commercial performance:
A feature in April 2011 focused on the AW139 as a VIP aircraft.