The 23-aircraft US Navy order for the next presidential helicopter fleet - awarded to the Lockheed Martin-led US101 team - is bigger than its quantity may suggest.

First, there is the sheer value of the contract award for the winning team. At $6.1 billion, the programme's funding for 23 aircraft rivals in size a roughly $6 billion US Air Force requirement expected to be launched later this year for about 132 helicopters.

AgustaWestland's success as part of the Lockheed Martin-led US101 team that secured the $1.7 billion VXX development contract in late January could lead to the company securing a number of additional deals over the coming years.

Although a successful product with 146 aircraft delivered, on order or under commitment for six nations before the US presidential helicopter announcement, the EH101 programme had been in danger of losing momentum, having late last year lost to Sikorsky's S-92 Cyclone in Canada's Maritime Helicopter Programme contest.

South Korea delayed its selection of a VIP helicopter to see which way Washington would move, and an EH101 selection is now considered increasingly likely. AgustaWestland says there are other VIP opportunities in Asia and the Middle East, with the same regions also cited as potential future markets for naval variants of the helicopter.

The company will this week promote the EH101 at the Aero India show in Bangalore, eyeing a lucrative future contract to replace the Indian navy's ageing Westland Sea King transports. The company is certain to try to leverage its recent presidential success in attempting to lure India and other new users to follow Washington's lead in also selecting the type.

Counting the USN contract, Anglo-Italian AgustaWestland now has an orderbook for 169 EH101s for Canada, Denmark, Italy, Japan, Portugal, the UK and the USA, and has survived a threatened erosion to its prospects. However, the type still faces stiff competition from development of the H-92 and the pending entry into service of the NH Industries NH90 - although the latter is a product in which AgustaWestland also holds a significant industrial interest.

Success in meeting smaller requirements in Japan (for 14 aircraft) and the USA (the 23-strong Marine One fleet) could now lead to larger and more lucrative follow-on deals in both countries, the company believes. The UK government is also keento continue its commitment to the EH101 Merlin programme under its future rotorcraft strategy. The UK is the largest EH101 customer to date, with 66 of the three-engined aircraft having been delivered to its air force and navy.

Under the terms of the US101 partnership, about 30% of the VXX development contract - amounting to roughly $2 billion - is to be split evenly between AgustaWestland's facilities in Italy and the UK. The Italians are responsible for producing the bulk of the gear box components, while the primary fuselage components and the main rotor blades will be produced in the UK. VXX partner Bell Helicopter also has set aside land adjoining its Amarillo, Texas plant for a final assembly site.

After popping the VXX victory champagne corks, workers at AgustaWestland's Yeovil plant had last week to suffer the hangover of deep job cuts being announced. In all, the workforce is being reduced from 4,000 to 3,300 workers, starting in early May.

Delays on some UK Ministry of Defence programmes have led to the job cuts. "Some programmes haven't come in as early as we'd hoped," AgustaWestland says.

Sikorsky's disappointment with losing the VXX contract, however, isnot likely to be compounded by an imminent financial crisis. In January 2004, when Sikorsky rolled out the "All-American" VH-92 industry team, a victory in the competition was seen as a survival test for the Connecticut manufacturer, but that is no longer the case.

In 12 months, Sikorsky has compiled 89 total orders, including options, between the civil S-92 and militaryH-92, which includes capturing Canada's 28-aircraft Maritime Helicopter Programme.

Additionally, Sikorsky also may be poised to reap a $3.5 billion windfall if the US Army confirms a plan to convert a remanufacture programme into a new-build order for more than 1,200 UH-60M Black Hawks.

additional reporting by Craig Hoyle and Helen Massy-Beresford in london


Source: Flight International