Douglas Barrie/LONDON Julian Moxon/PARIS

A South African technical evaluation team has visited US helicopter manufacturer Kaman to be briefed on the SH-2G Super Seasprite maritime helicopter, despite only Eurocopter and GKN Westland having been shortlisted to meet its naval helicopter requirement.

The visit in early May was carried out on the back of an evaluation trip to Bell Canada, which is offering the Bell 427 for the South African Air Force's Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) requirement, sparking speculation that Kaman could be allowed to bid for the naval order. South African sources confirm that the visit took place.

Political friction between South Africa and the USA, the result of a US defence embargo recently lifted, has apparently kept US manufacturers from being allowed to bid for the country's $1.5 billion defence procurement programme.

Eurocopter and GKN Westland, offering respectively the AS532SC Cougar and the Super Lynx 300, submitted best and final offers for the maritime helicopter requirement during the second week in May.

Sources close to the competition believe it is almost certainly too late for Kaman to submit an unsolicited bid, although a "no select" decision could re-open the competition.

Eurocopter is also bidding for the LUH programme with the EC365, but the company is once again becoming embroiled in allegations of illegal arms sales during the country's apartheid years.

A new French appeal court hearing has been set for later this year in a continuation of the legal battle between a Portuguese arms dealer and Eurocopter over alleged illegal sales of helicopters to the South African armed forces.

Reports indicate that former South African foreign affairs minister Pik Botha may be called to appear at the hearing in France, which comes after two previous hearings, one in South Africa and the other in France, exonerated the European company.

Botha would testify on behalf of the dealer, who claims that Eurocopter, as the successor to Aerospatiale's helicopter division, still owes him money for arranging a deal allowing the supply of helicopters at a time when South Africa was under sanctions. The helicopters were later unveiled by Armscor as a new development known as the Oryx.

Eurocopter has insisted all along that it had nothing to do with the deal. A company source says: "South Africa had a licence to build its own helicopters, so they hardly needed to buy ours."

Philippe Harache, Eurocopter's commercial executive vice-president, told a South African newspaper that the company has been a victim of a smear campaign to weaken its position in the battle to sell helicopters to South Africa.

Source: Flight International