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ANALYSIS: Poland's helicopter manufacturers look to new opportunities

Other than the home nations of Airbus and Leonardo, Poland is the only OEM for rotorcraft in Europe, and the only country in which a non-European airframer has a presence. Romania might beg to differ, but Airbus Helicopters is still waiting for an order from the domestic customer to instigate a final assembly line in Brasov.

Poland, by contrast, has two long-estabished centres of helicopter production in the southeast of the country: Mielec, where Lockheed Martin's Sikorsky division builds export versions of the Black Hawk, and Świdnik, home to a Leonardo plant that makes a range of airframes, as well as two indigenous military types whose designs date from the Communist era.

Both PZL Mielec and PZL Świdnik – as the factories are still known – are further examples of how Poland's aerospace industry has given itself a 21st Century relevance by attracting Western investment. The former was originally acquired by United Technologies (UTC) in 2007 as part of a series of investments by the US group in Poland's Aviation Valley that had begun four years earlier when Pratt & Whitney took over an engine factory in Rzeszów.

Lockheed Martin assumed ownership of PZL Mielec when it bought Sikorsky in 2015. Just under 200km (124 miles) north of Mielec, the then Finmeccanica-owned AgustaWestland acquired PZL Swidnik in 2010, turning it into the "third pillar" of its manufacturing capability in Europe, alongside Italy and the UK.

PZL Mielec, formed in 1938 and with 1,700 employees, began building cabin aerostructures for Sikorsky in 2008 and has delivered around 400 bodies, mainly for the UH-60M. Around the same time, it was authorised to produce an export version of the Black Hawk, called the S-70i. The first example was delivered in 2011 and around 40 have been shipped to seven customers in Brunei, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the USA. PZL Mielec carries out full assembly of the type with the only US involvement a final stop to install any sensitive equipment that falls under Washington DC's International Traffic in Arms Regulations.

HIGH PROFILE

"The fact that Poland is a final producer of aircraft and not just a parts manufacturer gives us a tremendous amount of prestige," a senior executive with the subsidiary tells FlightGlobal. "What is exciting is that because of Poland’s relative cost advantage, Sikorsky has a business case that allows improvements to be introduced to the Black Hawk here. Many of these would be too expensive to use US labour, but to do it in Poland is cost effective. So our [engineering] teams here are involved in the continuous improvement of the product."

Lockheed Martin sees opportunities for the S-70i in Baltic and other NATO countries that operate Soviet-era Mil Mi-2, Mi-8 and Mi-17s, as well as for Polish-built non-military variants such as the Firehawk, which has a belly tank fitted for fighting forest blazes. Sikorsky shipped two Firehawks last year and expects up to three more deliveries in 2018.

In addition, Mielec offers the legacy M28 Skytruck, a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-65B-powered, 19-seat, high-winged twin-turboprop that is marketed as a rugged utility for airdrops, delivering paratroopers or carrying commercial passengers and cargo. PZL Mielec delivered two aircraft last year to a company that acts as a contractor for the German defence ministry and supports Poland's fleet of some 50 aircraft, as well as those in service with Jordan and Nepal.

The Leonardo plant, meanwhile, dates from 1951 and produces airframes for the AW119Ke, the AW109LUH, the AW109S Grand and the AW139, as well as the home-grown light utility SW-4 and medium utility W-3 Sokół.

Over more than six decades, it has produced some 7,400 helicopters. The facility, which employs almost 3,500 including 630 engineers, also manufactures a range of aerostructures including centre wing boxes and door mechanisms for other customers and Leonardo claims to support a supply chain of 900 Polish businesses. With 150 Świdnik-produced helicopters in service with the Polish armed forces, support for those fleets is also a major role for the business.

Both manufacturers are involved in two Polish acquisition requirements, each for eight helicopters, for the navy and special forces, although only Sikorsky is promising to build S-70is for the special forces mission locally, if selected. Leonardo, in theory, could build AW101s in Poland, but that is only likely to happen if the Italian-owned manufacturer is selected for all 16 aircraft. Leonardo is pitching the AW149 for the special forces requirement, with Airbus Helicopters' H225M also a runner. Airbus is already embroiled in a dispute with the government after ministers cancelled a plan, made by the previous administration, to acquire 50 H225M Caracals, suggesting the deal would not do enough to benefit Polish aerospace. This was despite Airbus’s commitment to create a final assembly line in Łódź, manufacturing the type for Poland and export.

SUPPORTIVE STANCE

Lockheed tells FlightGlobal that it is "ready to support [the new Polish government] in any direction they take". The company adds: "They are going to take some time to evaluate their next steps. We think we have a compelling offer with the proven Black Hawk which we can customise to the user’s requirements. We have been established in Poland now for 10 years, but we understand that the customer will have multiple priorities, and a need to buy a lot more than just helicopters. So it is just one piece of their overall defence modernisation plan, but we would like to be a part of that if possible."

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