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FARNBOROUGH: Show a pivotal moment for the new Leonardo

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An air show debut for any company is a big moment, a sign that it has truly arrived. And to make that arrival at Farnborough is to announce its arrival on the grandest stage of all. However, in this case the business in question has a level of experience unmatched by most air show first-timers, with a product range – both civil and military, fixed- and rotary-wing – that others would die for. It is, of course, Leonardo, the newly rebranded Finmeccanica, Italy’s aerospace champion and a familiar face in this corner of Hampshire.

At last year’s Paris show – and to a lesser degree in Singapore earlier in 2016 – there was a sense that the company was reigning itself in: gone were the extravagant chalets and extensive static display line-ups of the past, to be replaced by a tiny stand hidden away in the back of one of the exhibition halls. Retrenchment seemed to be the watchword as Finmeccanica adjusted to life under the leadership of chief executive Mauro Moretti, and attempted to put some of the recent past – notably painful financial losses and an embarrassing bribery scandal – behind it.

But now with a new name thanks to its April rebrand, and equally important, a new structure, the company appears resurgent. Its static display line-up at Farnborough certainly hints at this, featuring four AgustaWestland helicopters, the Alenia C-27J airlifter in US Coast Guard livery, and, in the flying display, an M-346 Master trainer in a new dual-role configuration.

“It has been one of the most exciting times in the recent history of our group with the evolution over the last year and a half,” says Giovanni Soccodato, executive vice-president for strategies, markets and business development at Leonardo.

For him, the reshaped business is key. It has shed its train- and bus-building operations to focus solely on aerospace and defence, and brought the remaining parts into one company. “I think we are starting on a new way of working together more closely across the whole of the company.”

It is, he says, “a more comprehensive, coherent approach” with the key to understand customer requirements “much more closely” and to bring “together all the skills and know-how of the people in our different business areas”. The new structure means the business is “more integrated and unified under a single vision and set of objectives”.

By way of illustrating the new cross-company collaboration, he points to developments like the new search and rescue AgustaWestland AW101s being built for Norway, which are also the first application of its electronics division’s new lightweight Osprey active electronically scanned array radar.

The restructuring already appears to be paying dividends in financial terms with its full-year 2015 and first-quarter 2016 figures both positive; full-year results for 2016 are also “showing improvement”, he says.

Innovation, such as the dual-role M-346, will also be a watchword for Leonardo, he says. This initiative sees the advanced jet trainer also able to be configured in a ground-attack role.

“It is another example of the flexibility we can offer our customers. It is a clear guideline that has inspired in the past and will again in the future – to have platforms and systems which can be configured in different ways to deliver different capabilities,” says Soccodato.

That dual-role approach can already be seen in its helicopters and in the C-27J tactical transport, he argues, and is now being applied to the M-346 as well.

Massimo Ghione, sales and marketing director at the aircraft division, explains the thinking behind the switch. “We realised that this platform can do a completely different job. It can be a wonderful aggressor.

“But as a second step it has the agility and low operating cost so it can be used as a ground attack aircraft. So we started thinking how we can manage this requirement,” he says.

“Today [customers] will be able to fly a training mission and then immediately afterwards just with [the flick of a] switch it can become a fighter. Nobody else can do the same thing – they would have to change the aircraft significantly to move it from training to attack.”

It is further driving forward that multi-role concept on the C-27J battlefield airlifter, with a package of roll-on, roll-off mission equipment, allowing customers flexibility – for which read cost-effectiveness – while maintaining its basic transport capability.

“We have at least 10 customers approaching us now for this specific version,” he says.

With unmanned systems increasingly important across the industry, Soccodato feels this is another area where Leonardo can leverage its experience across different product areas.

“For us, going forward, the concept of autonomy and having the ability to manage platforms as a system with less involvement of human factors is a key driver of evolution,” he says.

It has products in the rotary-wing sector with its 1.8t-class Solo and 150kg Hero which should enter service “shortly”, plus on the fixed-wing side, involvement in the Dassault Neuron FCAS demonstrator programme, the Piaggio P1HH Hammerhead and, further out, the tri-nation European MALE 2020 project along with Airbus Defence & Space and Dassault.

“We are taking advantage of the expertise we have developed in-house within our electronics division,” he says.

“We have been really the ones that have helped [convert] a manned aircraft like the [Piaggio] P180 into an unmanned solution,” adds Fabrizio Boggiani, sales and marketing chief at Leonardo Airborne & Space Systems.

Despite a difficult global rotorcraft market, Leonardo’s helicopter division is staying positive. Arguably less exposed – although not immune – to the troubles in the oil and gas sector, it believes there are still enough sales opportunities out there.

Stefano Bortoli, sales and marketing senior vice-president at Leonardo Helicopters, says: “In the last month or so we have had a number of customers contact us in different parts of the world. Emergency medical services has been pretty consistent, has been a number of customers considering SAR helicopters and we are in discussions on a number of support contracts and upgrades.

“If you look at the market, more contracts are coming in the second half. We know what is going to happen in Q3 and Q4 and that will be much more rewarding for us. It is simply the dynamic of the business,” he says.

It is now in the ramp-up and delivery phase on its two newest civil programmes, the 8.3t AW189 super-medium and 4.6t AW169 medium twin; both will be present on its Farnborough static display, the latter in an EMS configuration.

Meanwhile, development work continues on its AW609 civil tiltrotor. However, the programme is still recovering from the fatal October 2015 crash of its second prototype in northern Italy and efforts to restart certification trials have been hampered by the impounding of the third flight-test article by an investigating magistrate. Leonardo maintains it can still hit its 2018 target for certification and service entry of the AW609, but the longer the aircraft remains on the ground (a US-based sister aircraft is also not presently flying) the more pressure that timetable comes under.

The question is also what comes next as engineering resources become available from the AW169 and AW189 programmes. Moretti has publically referred to the allocation of development funding for a programme he called the “AW209”, but little detail has so far emerged. Logically it would seem to be a replacement for the current AW109 light twin, but Bortoli declines to be drawn on specifics, simply noting that “we are thinking about our next generation of development in the light category.

“We have to investigate what the market demands. It is still in the early stages but it will develop in the next few years,” he says.

Overall, he says, the company’s dynamic remains much the same: “We want to bring to our customers innovative products that have embedded technology – advanced solutions that make the aircraft easy to fly, affordable to operate and safe.”

As well as making aircraft and systems of its own, Leonardo is also engaged in two joint venture programmes in the regional market: ATR turboprops and the Sukhoi Superjet. However, there are signs that change is afoot on both, with Leonardo keen to reshape the structure of both joint ventures. On ATR, this is driven by a desire to take a controlling interest in the programme in order to drive forward new products, something repeatedly stymied by joint venture partner Airbus Group.

Soccodato says Airbus has responded positively to its overtures, but formal negotiations have yet to begin. “We have declared we are interested to do that and they have said they are open to it,” he adds.

And on the Superjet programme, Leonardo is seeking to address one of the flaws it perceives on the Russian-built regional jet: “What was missing was a real industrial involvement from our side.”

However, Soccodato is cautious about the chances of a positive outcome: “We don’t know what will happen in these discussions, they are not easy to conclude.”

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