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Leonardo Helicopters could move AW149 production to UK

Leonardo Helicopters could transfer final assembly of the AgustaWestland AW149 to its Yeovil plant, if the UK selects the type – or a modified version of it – for any future medium-class rotorcraft acquisition.

In July 2016, the manufacturer and the UK Ministry of Defence renewed of a strategic partnership agreement (SPA), including a commitment to begin early definition work on a future medium-weight, vertical-lift platform.

Envisaged as a replacement for the Royal Air Force’s fleet of Airbus Helicopters Puma HC2s, which are due to retire in 2025, the requirement could also encompass replacement of the heavier AW101 Merlin HM2 and HC4/4As operated by the Royal Navy in 2035.

Daniele Romiti, managing director of Leonardo Helicopters, says that if it is eventually chosen by the MoD, AW149 production could be transferred to Yeovil from its plant in Vergiate, Italy.

“The AW149 if selected by the UK [armed forces] eventually could be a way to sell the AW149 abroad. My interest would be putting the AW149 build line in Yeovil.”

However, such a move would only make sense “if you have numbers”, he cautions. “I’m not saying that the numbers have to come only from the UK government, but when the UK government selects that, it is going to be a strong push for export sales.”

But he notes that it is “difficult to sell a military product abroad if your country has not selected it”.

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Romiti is keen to set the parameters for any future programme, observing that a new design, or even modification of an existing platform, could take four to five years to complete.

A future sale to the UK would solve two problems for Leonardo Helicopters: it would establish a marquee customer for the AW149 and secure work for Yeovil in the longer term.

Launched in 2006 and first flown in 2009, the AW149 has struggled for sales – with its only order a five-unit deal with an undisclosed customer, which Flight Fleets Analyzer identifies as the Royal Thai Army.

Meanwhile, the Yeovil plant needs a long-term programme to secure final assembly work once the current contracts for the AW159 Wildcat and AW101 are completed.

Although Leonardo Helicopters had hoped the Somerset site would become a centre of excellence for search and rescue (SAR) AW189s, a lack of orders beyond 11 for Bristow Helicopters in the UK has put paid to this in the short term; although Romiti refuses to rule out some future SAR work, it is entirely dependent on volumes, he says.

In the interim, the focus at Yeovil seems to lie elsewhere. In February 2017, the MoD awarded Leonardo Helicopters a two-year capability demonstration contract covering the development of rotary-wing unmanned air vehicles.

“I hope the UK will be taking more and more ownership of what we have put inside the SPA. The goal was to go ahead in unmanned rotary applications,” says Romiti, who sees potential for domestic orders, plus interest from other nations.

“The key is to develop this programme. If I have to give priority, I would focus the Yeovil site to look at these new applications. It is vital to us to have a product in this area. There is a potential European application for unmanned rotorcraft,” he says.

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