IN FOCUS: AgustaWestland brings civil rotorcraft to UK factory as military options dry up

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A quick glance at a map of the area surrounding Agusta­Westland's Yeovil factory in the southwest of England shows the airframer's deep links to the town. Streets called Sea King Road, Merlin Road and Gazelle Road pay homage to the then-­Westland's past successes.

But in October 2011, the Anglo-Italian airframer was busy responding to decimated defence budgets by cutting some 375 posts from the Yeovil plant.

Some saw this as the beginning of the end for a factory that has been producing helicopters since the late 1940s, as AgustaWestland tried to maintain jobs in Italy, home of parent company Finmeccanica. It also confirmed the fears of those who saw Finmeccanica's acquisition of GKN's 50% stake in the company in 2004 as detrimental to British manufacturing.

However, fast-forward a year and AgustaWestland is pledging more than £50 million to the factory - with the UK government chipping in a further £46 million, the third largest award under its Regional Growth Fund - to turn Yeovil into a hub for civil rotorcraft design, research and production. Announcing the successful application for funding on 19 October, AgustaWestland chief executive Bruno Spagnolini said that government support "is more than welcome, it shows they believe in our strategy".

UK chairman Graham Cole, who has been with the company since 1974, added: "It's not only the investment that's important but the confidence that they have shown in us. We can use that to drive us forward."

It will be quite a change for the factory, which has in recent times concentrated solely on military programmes, most famously the Lynx, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. That production line is still going, turning out the latest iteration, the Lynx Wildcat, for the British army and Royal Navy, but that alone is not enough to secure Yeovil's future.

AgustaWestland's first civil market plan for Yeovil revolves around the AW169 light intermediates, due to enter service in 2014 and to be jointly produced in Italy and the UK. The type has commitments for about 60 units, but Yeovil needs another product to ensure its long-term future, and AgustaWestland is pinning its hopes on the search and rescue market. It has pitched its in-­development AW189 medium-twin to the UK's long-running SAR contest. Should it prevail next year, it has promised to use Yeovil to produce SAR-configured variants, including airframes, of the GE CT7-2E1-powered helicopter for the rest of the world.

"The credentials [being selected] would give us are very significant. So I wouldn't like to say [AW189 production] is totally conditional on that, but it is hugely important," says Spagnolini.

Looking further ahead, Agusta­Westland will base a great deal of research and development work for the AW609 tiltrotor, and future tiltrotor types, at Yeovil. Fly-by-wire controls, systems integration and rotorblade technology will be the core of Yeovil's contribution to the programme.

Spagnolini notes that Agusta­Westland is the "only European helicopter manufacturer [involved in] tiltrotor technology". Indeed, it is the only helicopter builder in the world engaged in a civil tiltrotor programme, following its acquisition of Bell's interest in the project last year.

Time will tell if tiltrotors can save Yeovil, though. Although it has a notional orderbook of about 70 units, until the company can firm its manufacturing schedule and prices in mid-2014, those commitments remain nothing more than promises.

And, Bell's divestment of its share of the joint venture and the chequered safety record of the military equivalent, the Bell ­Boeing V-22 Osprey, hardly feel like major selling points for the AW609 either. The other designs chasing the nascent high-speed helicopters market, Sikorsky's X2 and the Eurocopter X3, have both shied away from complex tilt­rotor technology.

Spagnolini is undaunted: "It is next year's technology. I'm confident that it will generate sales."

Cole underscores that confidence and adds: "Unless we get it to the market, then we can't start making money from it."

Despite the promised investment, the UK SAR contest, future sales of tiltrotor types and a challenging military market all pose significant uncertainties. But one thing is clear; with purely military production, Yeovil would have no future at all.