Clive Higgins, the chief executive of Leonardo in the UK, holds particular affection for the company’s Yeovil helicopter plant in southwest England: it is where he started his career as an apprentice working on the Sea King programme when the manufacturer was still known as Westland.
“It’s a particular honour for me being back in Yeovil as I walked through those doors 30 years ago to start my apprenticeship,” he says.
Higgins was “back in Yeovil” for an event held at the facility on 22 August to mark the town’s recognition by local government and business groups as the “Home of British Helicopters”.
It was, the company said, “a celebration of Yeovil being at the heart of UK aerospace for more than 100 years”.
The ‘Home of British Helicopters’ tagline is a phrase that has been used by the company in its marketing material for several years now, but is there much significance from its wider adoption?
In practical terms it means very little – new signs featuring the slogan have been erected at the town’s boundaries and at its rail stations – creating a temptation to dismiss the whole thing as a desperately parochial affair.
But, argues Higgins, its bestowal is a recognition that the plant and its capabilities are a “national asset”, demonstrating the “importance of industrial facilities such as this to [local] communities and the region”.
Putting aside the emphasis on the site’s heritage and the decidedly local aspects of the event – the backing from Yeovil Town Football Club and the town’s shopping centre, for instance – it has clearly been orchestrated with one eye on the future.
Faced with competition, Leonardo’s unambiguous message to a government actively seeking new rotorcraft under the New Medium Helicopter (NMH) programme is this: the country already has a helicopter manufacturer and a community and supply chain that depends on it. Figures released by the company show it spent some £474 million ($596 million) with UK suppliers last year.
The delivery of that message to Westminster should be aided by the presence of all four local parliamentarians at the event – largely from the ruling Conservative party but also including Sarah Dyke, newly elected Liberal Democrat MP for Frome & Somerton, a sign of the shifting political landscape.
To further ram it home, speakers were stood against the backdrop of an AW149 demonstrator resplendent in Union Jack markings.
Should it win NMH, Leonardo has promised to build the AW149 super-medium-twin in Yeovil, including those for export. Rival Airbus Helicopters has made a similar pledge to localise production of the H175M at a new plant in Broughton, North Wales. Sikorsky? Well, its plans around the S-70M Black Hawk are unclear but seem unlikely, given its PZL Mielec subsidiary in Poland, to involve a substantive industrial presence in the UK.
Higgins side-steps the question of what happens to Yeovil if it does not win the contest, simply saying: “I’m going to be positive and take the view that we will be successful.” The NMH programme will be a “key tenant of the future”, he says.
Incumbency is a double-edged sword, of course: it should put a manufacturer in pole position but can also breed arrogance, leading competitors to ask legitimate questions as to whether the taxpayer is really getting best value. Contracts, they argue, should be awarded on merit, not on the grounds of sentiment or history.
If Yeovil were struggling for orders then Leonardo’s position would also seem more akin to blackmail: give us NMH or the plant – and the wider community – gets it.
But, says Higgins, a flurry of recent interest in the AW101 and even the AW159 Wildcat have put the factory in a better place.
“It sends a strong message to our competition that it is a vibrant facility generating value for the UK,” he says.
Both Higgins and Adam Clarke, managing director of Leonardo Helicopters UK, are at pains to point out that the manufacturer is unique. It is, says Clarke, “one of only a handful of organisations around the world – and the only one in the UK – with an end-to-end helicopter manufacturing capability”.
In other words, it has the competence to design, build and certificate a complete helicopter. Plus, they note, that sovereign design capability means “we would be able to design and modify and adapt [the platform] to whatever the warfighter needs”, says Clarke; intellectual property would also remain in the UK, he adds.
That seems a thinly veiled swipe at NMH rivals Airbus Helicopters and Sikorsky, whose centres of gravity lie elsewhere – entities ultimately at the bidding of their home governments, the argument goes.
In addition, Leonardo’s ambitions for the Yeovil site also stretch beyond rotorcraft. “We are looking to deploy some of the other divisions into the facility as well,” says Higgins.
Those activities relate to the company’s position on the multinational Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) where the UK business is leading development of the advanced electronics for the sixth-generation fighter in partnership with companies in Italy and Japan.
Higgins declines to detail the exact work to be undertaken but says it is around the cyber resilience of those electronic systems.
He sees additional opportunities to tap into the capabilities the company is developing for GCAP, such as autonomy and data fusion, and eventually bring them to the rotary-wing domain.
“That’s where the UK business puts us head and shoulders above the rest – the ability to fit some of that Tempest technology into a rotary-wing platform.
“Across the business, our engineers are working more closely than they ever have before.”
In the meantime, the NMH contest remains stuck in limbo. The Ministry of Defence has promised to release the next stage of its tender later this year but as to when that might take place is anyone’s guess.
Based on typical procurement timelines any contract award is unlikely to come before the next election.
With that in mind, the wait for a new tennant at the ‘Home of British Helicopters’ continues.