Kate Sarsfield/LONDON

Protracted negotiations for the sale of the entire Boeing civil helicopter production line are expected to reach a conclusion by the end of the month when the company is expected to announce the winning bid.

According to an industrial source, Boeing has received bids from US helicopter manufacturers Enstrom and Schweizer for the MD500 and MD600 helicopter range, while Belgian helicopter distributor Heli Fly has bid for the entire range, including the MD 902 Explorer. "There are about five companies interested in the MD500/600 line-up," says the source. Eurocopter is also thought to have registered an initial interest in the line-up, but is understood not to be bidding.

Heli Fly has teamed with an unnamed Dutch group and plans to transfer some production to the Netherlands. Earlier plans to assemble the Explorer at the former Belgian air force base at Brustrem, near Sint-Truiden, have been abandoned because of a lack of interest by the local government.

The Halen-based company, an official dealer for the Boeing helicopter range in Benelux - Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg - and France, has appointed Turkish Aerospace Industries to build the MD Explorer fuselage at its Ankara factory. The parts will then be shipped to an undisclosed site in the Netherlands for assembly and then on to Belgium for completion.

If successful, the MD500/600 assembly line will remain in Mesa, California, near the existing factory.

Heli Fly signed an asset purchase agreement with Boeing in August, covering production of the Explorer. In September, it widened negotiations to include acquisition of its MD500 and MD600 stablemates after an intended deal between Boeing and Bell Helicopter Textron was blocked by the US Government.

"If Heli Fly doesn't succeed in widening the deal to buy the MD500/600 line, they will pull-out completely," says the source.

The distributor is confident there is a large market for the helicopters, and has forecast a rise in production for the Explorer line alone, from 12 aircraft a year in 1998 to 50 in 2003.

Source: Flight International