Agusta A109BA (c/n 0345, H45 of the Belgian Air Component) and MD Helicopters MD 500E (c/n 0191E, OK-PKS) in a joint flying display during Czech International Air Show, Hradec Králové, September 2017.
The A109 helicopter was developed in the late 1960s by Italian rotorcraft manufacturer, Agusta. Initially, the A109 was designed as a single engine aircraft but, responding to market demand, it was finally made as a twin-engine one. The main goal of Agusta development team was to create a versatile, multi-purpose rotorcraft, able to accommodate the needs of many civilian and military customers.
The first prototype of the new Italian rotorcraft performed its maiden flight on 4th August 1971. Further test flights and final stage of development lasted until the mid-1975 and the first civilian customers received their new A109 helicopters in 1976. At that time, the manufacturer was focused only on civilian versions of the rotorcraft, designated A109A and A109C, while the dedicated military A109B variant received low priority.
Nevertheless, even the A109A found its way into the army and law enforcement forces, for example being used by the Argentine Army Aviation during the Falklands War, as well as by the Italian Police and Guardia di Finanza.
In 1988, a special military variant designated A109BA was created for the Belgian armed forces. The rotorcraft was developed from the A109C version and a total of forty six helicopters was delivered. The purchase was carried out in an atmosphere of scandal, with the Agusta company being accused of giving a bribe of 50 million BEF to Belgian authorities to secure the contract. That situation finally led to resignation of then NATO Secretary General, Willy Claes.
However, this kickback affair hadn´t affected the future sales of helicopters from the A109 family. Further developed military variants were acquired by the US Coast Guard, the South African Air Force, the Swedish Army, the Royal New Zealand Air Force, the Philippine Air Force and the Navy, as well as several other military operators all over the world. The civilian variants became popular among emergency services and air ambulance companies, as well as used for air charters and VIP transport duties (including carrying members of the British Royal Family).
In 2000, as a result of merger of the Agusta and Westland companies, the helicopter was renamed AW109. In 2016, AgustaWestland became a helicopter division under Leonardo Helicopters. Upgraded variants of the A109 rotorcraft are still present in the Leonardo company portfolio.
History of the MD500 helicopter dates back to the late 1950s and the Light Observation Helicopter (LOH) programme announced by the US Army. Its first outline was shaped already in 1953 and, after a few further evaluations, the final version of the initiative was issued on 14th October 1960.
That contest for a light scout helicopter was won by Model 369 (also known as YHO-6) rotorcraft, proposed by the Hughes company. It then received a military designation OH-6 Cayuse and performed its maiden flight on 27th February 1963. Parallelly with the military variant, Hughes developed a civilian version of the helicopter, designated Hughes 500.
The ´flying egg´ – as that helicopter is often nicknamed – quickly gained popularity among variety of civilian, military and law enforcement operators. Apart from the US armed forces, the OH-6 was used in Japan, Spain, Denmark, Malta, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic and Taiwan. The civilian version was acquired by several US police departments, Hungarian and Belgian police forces and many other government organizations all over the world.
In 1984, the Hughes Helicopters company was sold to McDonnel Douglas and turned into its subsidiary named McDonnel Douglas Helicopter Company. Then, in 1997, McDonnel Douglas merged into Boeing and production of civilian helicopters was assigned to a new company, MD Helicopters Holdings Inc., effective 1999.
Nowadays, the new, upgraded variants of the MD500 rotorcraft are still being offered by the MD Helicopters company.
A unique joint flying display of the MD500E and the A109BA was performed back in 2017, during the CIAF air show in Hradec Králové, Czech Republic. The A109BA was of the Belgian Aviation Component – which is often participating in joint military exercises with the Czech Air Force – and the MD500E was at that time owned by the Heli Czech s.r.o. company, with its seat at Hradec Králové airfield.
Although only five years passed from that display, it would be almost impossible to repeat it today. The MD500E was in 2018 sold to another operator in Slovakia, while the A109BA are currently being retired from the Belgian armed forces.