Bell Helicopter Textron has submitted a $70 million bid for a majority stake in Romanian manufacturer IAR, lending renewed credibility to talks on licensed production of a Bell AH-1 Cobra attack-helicopter derivative known as the Dracula.

Neculai Banea, president of Transylvania-based IAR, says that Bell wants the 70% stake now in the hands of the Government's State Ownership Fund, plus a further 4.75% held by so-called Private Ownership Funds - effectively Romania's parliament. The remaining 25.25% will stay in the hands of the current 18,000 private Romanian shareholders.

Banea says that some 60% of the money will go towards clearing company debts. Bell will also invest $12.5 million in upgrading IAR's plant, and provide the company with subcontracts guaranteeing to keep at least 2,000 of IAR's 2,400 workers employed.

The offer is under negotiation with the Government in Bucharest, and a decision was expected in late February. The recently elected Government, led by prime minister Victor Ciorbea, has committed itself to rapid progress on privatisation, which had stalled under the previous administration.

At the same time, Banea hopes to have a signed contract for 96 Draculas with the Romanian defence ministry, along with four contracts with the US company covering the licence agreement, the supply by Bell of materials and subassemblies, training of IAR personnel in Texas, and technical support. The Romanian Government has already given a commitment to fund the programme, with the possibility of drawing money from "additional sources" - such as banks or investment companies. Banea estimates the cost of the programme at about $1 billion.

The helicopter is based on the AH-1W Supercobra airframe, powered by two General Electric T700 turboshafts, but will have new weapons and avionics from an as-yet-unspecified supplier. Banea says that the engines are to be manufactured under licence by Turbomecanica in Bucharest, and that General Electric has expressed an interest in acquiring an initial 20% stake in the engine manufacturer as part of the deal - although rival manufacturers have also expressed interest in acquiring holdings.

The ministry is expected to decide on the weapons and avionics supplier this month. Under consideration are Elbit and Litton.

Banea says that Bell also plans to put production of commercial-helicopter subassemblies and components for Bell Canada into IAR, as well as a package of work for Textron. "We are expecting some Cessna activities to be transferred here, regarding maintenance for European aircraft fleets," he says.

It is unclear how the deal could affect IAR's relationship with Eurocopter France. The Romanian company has licences to manufacture and support Puma and Alouette III helicopters, and still hopes for a deal allowing it to build the Ecureuil light helicopter.

Banea says that Bell is to have talks with Eurocopter to "-smooth the relationship" and seek a solution protecting both companies' interests.

Source: Flight International