Brasov is a picturesque Transylvanian town known for its architecture, its location in the Carpathian mountains, and its proximity to the semi-legendary castle now known - for the benefit of tourists - as "Castle Dracula".

Although the much-feared, but respected historical leader Vlad the Impaler, in whose memory the castle has been named, apparently spent little time there, he would no doubt be flattered that he is remembered - not only in tourist attractions and vampiric legends, but also in the name of a military helicopter programme crucial to the future of Romania's defence forces and its aerospace industry: the AH-1RO Dracula.

The helicopter looks set to be the latest in a line of machines to be licence-produced at the IAR factory just outside Brasov, which maintains a tradition of aeronautical construction begun in 1925.

Between the World Wars, the company had licence-produced aircraft such as the Savoia-Marchetti 79B, Fiesler Storch Fi 156 and Messerschmitt BF-109G. It also built what was then acknowledged as one of the best fighters in the world, the Romanian-designed IAR 80.

Political decisions taken by the post-war Communist Government relegated IAR to building tractors, although a small team of engineers, lead by Losif Silimon, continued to design and build light aircraft. Then, in 1968, the factory returned to mainstream aircraft construction under the name ICA Brasov, starting out with licence production of Pilatus Britten-Norman Islander subassemblies and manufacture of metal gliders.

Since 1971, however, IAR has focused on helicopter work, fulfilling one of then-President Nicolae Ceausescu's ambitious dreams of industrial expansion. IAR began production of the IAR-316B Alouette III under licence from Aerospatiale, eventually building 230 units. The company later moved on to licensed production of the IAR-330L Puma in 1976, to meet a Romanian Army requirement for a troop carrier and tactical support helicopter.

To date, IAR says it has produced some 160 Pumas, but production has slowed to only one or two units per year. For now, the company is working on a seven-year programme for a combat upgrade of the helicopter for the Romanian army, which IAR president Neculai Banea says will be fitted with state-of-the-art avionics, manufactured "with the support of Aerostar [in Bacau] and Elbit [of Israel]", and a new weapons package. The aircraft is to be capable of night missions, and will have a high degree of commonality with the Dracula, says Banea.

The first prototype of the upgraded Puma is to come off the production line this year, possibly even before the Paris air show in mid-June. Banea says that the company will at least display a mock-up of the helicopter in Paris.

In the mid-1980s, IAR was pursuing a light attack and training helicopter called the IAR-317 Airfox - a derivative of the Alouette III with a revised, armoured tandem cockpit which first flew in April 1984. IARsays that development of this helicopter - which had been intended for the Romanian armed forces - was cancelled by the Government of Ceausescu, then struggling with a crippling national debt.

Work on licensed production of the Kamov Ka-126 turboshaft version of the Ka-26 helicopter, announced in 1985, has now also been halted. The first Romanian-built Ka-126 was flown in 1989, and although IAR says it still has some airframes and components at Brasov, Kamov, and the rest of the world, appears to have lost interest in the programme. "Everybody is looking towards the West," says IAR marketing manager Stefan Paunescu.


Aircraft manufacture

The company is also developing the IAR-46 very light aircraft, which it hopes to certificate by the middle of this year. The two-seat, 750kg maximum-take-off weight aircraft has a 60kW (80hp) Rotax 912 F3/A3 flat-four engine driving a two-blade Hoffman constant-speed propeller. Several prototypes have been built, and Paunescu says that certification has so far been delayed by lack of financing and by "difficulties in establishing a certification agenda with the Romanian authorities". However, the company still sees "huge" potential for the aircraft, estimating a market for 1,000 units worldwide -- and "particularly in the United States".

The factory at Brasov now employs about 2,400 people, including some 300 engineers. This staff has been cut from 4,000 in 1990, and is still excessive for IAR's reduced workload.

Now, after long-running negotiations, the company appears to be on the brink of a majority takeover by US manufacturer Bell Helicopter Textron.

The two companies have been talking for years about licensed production in Romania of a variant of the Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter, in connection with a requirement from the Romanian Ministry of National Defence (MoND). Under the CFE conventional arms limitation treaty, Romania is allowed 120 attack helicopters. It plans to make 24 of these upgraded Pumas, work which is also being carried out by IAR in co-operation with Elbit of Israel. This allows the MoND to procure up to 96 of the Cobra derivatives, which IARis now calling the AH-1RO Dracula. The overall cost of the programme is estimated at close to $1 billion.


Supercobra-based design

The helicopter is to be based on the AH-1W Supercobra airframe, powered by two General Electric T700 turboshafts. According to Banea, the engines are to be manufactured under licence by Bucharest-based Turbomecanica. He adds that GE has expressed an interest in taking an initial 20% stake in the company in connection with the deal - although rival manufacturers are also understood to be interested in buying a stake in Turbomecanica.

The helicopter is to have a new weapons and avionics package from an as-yet-unspecified supplier, although it is known that Elbit and Litton are both interested in the package. A decision on the supplier is expected from the ministry before the end of April.

In February, Bell gave the Dracula programme a credibility boost when it submitted a $70 million offer for about three-quarters of IAR. According to Banea, the US company wants to buy the 70% stake now in the hands of the Government's State Ownership Fund, plus a further 4.75% held by the so-called "Private Ownership Fund", which is administered by Romania's parliament. The remaining 25.25% will remain in the hands of the 18,000 or so private Romanian shareholders.

IAR's financial position is not a happy one, largely as a result of a dramatic fall in military orders, and about 60% of the money Bell pays for its stake will go towards clearing company debts, says Banea. The US company will also invest about $12.5 million in upgrading IAR's plant, and is promising to provide enough subcontracting work to keep at least 2,000 of the current employees in work.

The offer is still being negotiated with the Bucharest Government, and a decision is expected in the near future. Recently-elected prime minister Victor Ciorbea has publicly committed his Government to quick progress on privatisation, which had rapidly ground to a halt under the previous administration.

Banea is hoping that Bell's decision to buy will come concurrently with a MoND contract for 96 Draculas for delivery between 1999 and 2006. Four contracts with the US company are expected, covering the licence agreement, the supply of materials and subassemblies, training of IAR personnel in Texas, and technical support. All necessary US Government approval for the programme has been granted, says IAR.

The Bucharest Government has already committed itself to funding the programme, with the possibility of turning to "external sources" of cash if the cost seriously oversteps the country's limited defence budget. The International Monetary Fund recommends that Romania should not spend more than 1.6% of its $24.6 billion gross domestic product per year on defence, although the MoND has been pushing for 3%.


Building textron links

According to Banea, Bell is planning to put production of commercial helicopter subassemblies and components for Bell Canada into IAR, as well as other work for Textron. "We are also expecting some [Textron-owned] Cessna activities to be transferred here, regarding maintenance for European aircraft," he says.

Questions remain over how the deal will affect IAR's long-standing relationship with Bell's arch-rival Eurocopter France, although manufacture, upgrading and support work on the Puma and Alouette III is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

IAR and Eurocopter signed an agreement in mid-1996 which was to allow IAR to manufacture 80 single-engined AS350BA Ecureuils and twin-engined AS355N Ecureuil 2s. The deal was to be financed by French banks - which were to pay Fr90 million ($17 million)annually to IAR over ten years - and would have led to the production of 40 airframes up to 2001, with the rest following after. It would also have included maintenance and repair work.

Banea says that, despite the likely takeover, Bell is to have talks with Eurocopter to smoothe the relationship, and find a solution which protects the interests of both companies. Banea still hopes to produce light helicopters at IAR, although whether they will be Ecureuils, or Bell 407s or 427s, remains to be seen.

"We are still manufacturing products under licence from Eurocopter France, and we have an obligation to support these products," says Banea. No matter how the Eurocopter issue is resolved, IAR's future would seem far more secure under Bell than standing alone, as Romania struggles to recover from the revolution of its recent history.

Source: Flight International