Sikorsky breathes new life into PZL Mielec

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Four years ago, PZL Mielec was another struggling, state-owned eastern European manufacturer. It had a proud history but was building just a few examples a year of its flagship product, the M28 utility and passenger aircraft, and servicing a fleet of about 30, mainly in South America and Asia.

Despite it winning some third-party aerostructures work, its sprawling post-war factory complex, which once employed 20,000 people, was far too large for the size of the business, and was falling into disrepair.

Enter Sikorsky. The United Technologies helicopter maker acquired PLZ Mielec in 2007 and has invested almost $75 million in new tooling, modernising the buildings and, as PZL Mielec president Janusz Zakrecki says, transforming the business into "a world-class, super modern, effective aircraft manufacturer and important part of the global supply chain".

The biggest coup for PZL Mielec was Sikorsky's decision to produce the new S-70i "international" version of the Black Hawk at the Polish plant. The first example of the S-70i was moved to Sikorsky's flight-test centre in Florida in early May, and assembly of the second aircraft is under way at Mielec, with first flight scheduled before the end of the year. Sikorsky plans to build at least 20 S-70i helicopters a year from 2012 and Sikorsky claims there could be demand for up to 1,000 examples throughout the world.

The factory will also build at least 200 cabins for the UH-60 version of the helicopter, 1,200 of which have been ordered by the US Army, a contract that will ensure more than five years of production, says Zakrecki. With employment back up at almost 1,900, the Black Hawk contracts have "solved many of the Mielec aviation problems which existed for many recent years", he says, including stablity and job security, and access to new technology, tooling and training that can be used for other programmes.

"Sikorsky has given PZL Mielec a reliable investor, resulting in bright, well-equipped production halls, modern equipment and IT systems, improvement of work safety and social benefits," says Zakrecki. "It is also a benefit for the whole region. Such production allows us to build a supply chain here in the Polish market. It also gives PZL Mielec the possibility of becoming the leading company in the Podkarpacie [Aviation Valley] region."

Although the decision to locate S-70i production in Poland was not directly related to a defence contract, the fact that the country is a "major strategic partner of the USA" has helped Sikorsky obtain US approval to "develop significant production capability" of the UH-60 in Poland, says Zakrecki.

The Black Hawk contracts have also helped secure the future of the M28. The multi­purpose, short take-off and landing aircraft will continue to be built at Mielec, although in relatively small volumes. The company has an orderbook for "over 20", for the Polish ministry of defence as well as an unnamed US customer, says Zakrecki.

He adds: "Further contracts are under negotiations" to tap "a growing niche for STOL airplanes both for commercial and government operators". An upgrade is also planned.

Touring PZL Mielec it is clear the pride the managers have in the company's latest product and the gleaming equipment and lean production lines to build it. However, there is also an appreciation of the well-lit and spacious new production halls. Pointing out a small storage area of the plant left untouched by the refurbishment, operations director Bogdan Ostrowski explains why fixing the building itself was a priority: "It is difficult to talk about lean when you have a leaking roof."