Leonardo Helicopters managing director Gian Piero Cutillo believes the company’s UK site in Yeovil will remain a “centre of excellence” for the company, amid an expansion of its production footprint elsewhere.
Yeovil has for several years relied on two platforms – the AW101 Merlin and AW159 Wildcat – to sustain its final assembly activities but export sales have been sluggish, particularly for the latter platform.
Although Leonardo Helicopters intends to build AW149s at the site if it is successful in the UK’s New Medium Helicopter (NMH) contest, concerns have been raised about the long-term future for the plant if it fails to win.
In the meantime, Leonardo Helicopters is investing in new production lines elsewhere – for the AW139 in Algeria and the AW149 at its PZL-Swidnik subsidiary in Poland, the latter on the back of a 32-unit order for the super-medium-twin for the country’s armed forces.
But Cutillo, speaking at the recent Heli-Expo show in Atlanta, points out that Yeovil continues to win work. A previously undisclosed order for three AW159s from a North African customer has seen the Wildcat line reactivated, and in the meantime new AW101s are being built for Norway and Poland.
Additional design and development work for the site has been generated by Canada’s decision to proceed with a mid-life upgrade (MLU) for its fleet of AW101-based CH-149 Cormorant search and rescue helicopters. Another existing customer is also looking at an upgrade programme that may also see new examples built.
Cutillo says the manufacturer is also working with the Italian navy to define the content of another MLU for its 22-strong fleet of AW101s.
Design activities and initial modification work will take place in the UK, he says, and even if there is a “completion centre in Italy” there will nonetheless “be a big contribution from Yeovil”.
Of course, the big prize would be a contract from the UK Ministry of Defence for AW149s. “Yeovil is extremely important to us and we do believe it is the OEM reference for the UK customer.
“I think we can really be the right combination between a good machine and the best social value and UK content for them.”
Selection of the AW149 for the NMH contest would also see Yeovil build the helicopter for the export market. However, should that deal not materialise, then Leonardo Helicopters “has other options”, says Cutillo, including the current plant in Vergiate, Italy or the new Polish line.
Cutillo says he is “very proud” of the work being carried out at PZL-Swidnik: “They have really responded very, very well to all the challenges” and have moved from simple manufacturing to more complex projects.
Despite the site’s growing capabilities, Cutillo insists that thanks to its design and engineering expertise “Yeovil will remain a second hub for Leonardo” and “a centre of excellence”.
Meanwhile, efforts continue to solidify Leonardo Helicopters’ plans for an AW139 line in Algeria following the setting up of a joint venture with the country’s defence ministry in 2019.
“We are still working with the partner to see how we can make this operational,” says Cutillo. “At the moment it is something that is on its way to being defined.”
Should the project proceed, then the plant will build AW139s for the Algerian domestic market.