The launch of the AgustaWestland AW169 helicopter programme is a significant milestone for the UK aerospace industry – which will see the first large civil helicopter to be built in Britain for over 30 years.

 
 
[caption id="attachment_4574" align="alignnone" width="263" caption="Computer rendering of the AW169 'light intermediate' helicopter. (AgustaWestland)"][/caption] On 21 July, in a VIP ceremony at AgustaWestland’s Yeovil factory, UK Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), Vince Cable MP announced that the helicopter manufacturer would be boosted by an investment of some £32m towards its new civil AW169 ‘light intermediate’ helicopter project. The funding, which divides into a £22m loan at market rates and £10m grant towards rotorcraft R&D, is a significant boost for the UK arm of the Anglo-Italian helicopter manufacturer – securing key jobs and skills and, more significantly, (re)opening a new phase for UK aerospace in civil rotorcraft manufacturing – one that has lain dormant for over 30 years – and the promise of a civil production line for the AW169. This opens, as Vince Cable noted, the ‘next chapter’ in Britain’s “long and accomplished history of aircraft production.” [caption id="attachment_4575" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Vince Cable, SofS for Business, Innovation and Skills at the announcement."][/caption] The day also included the signing of the first UK order for the AW169 – for two EMS-equipped helicopters from Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance (WNAA) – operated by Sloane Helicopters. This follows fast on the heels of an order for ten AW169s in June from Spanish EMS operator INAER. The two UK helicopters, according to AgustaWestland, will come off a UK production line in Yeovil.

The AW169

[caption id="attachment_4576" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Cockpit of the AW169 features three large MFDs. (AgustaWestland)."][/caption] First launched in 2010 at the Farnborough air show, the AW169 is a ‘light intermediate’ four-tonne twin-engine helicopter – able to carry two pilots and 8/10 passengers. It thus fills a niche in AgustaWestland’s family between the smaller A109 and larger AW139. With a 6.3m3 cabin it is aimed at the EMS, SAR, VIP and parapublic missions – to compete with Eurocopter’s EC145. Power comes from two P&WC PW210 1,000shp turbines. The cockpit, meanwhile, features three large (8in x 10in) colour MFDs, a digital flight control system and dual FMSs. [caption id="attachment_4577" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Flight testing of one of the four AW169 prototypes will be carried out at Yeovil."][/caption] For the AW169, AgustaWestland’s Yeovil factory and UK suppliers will play a major role in the “design, development and manufacture” of rotor blades, gearboxes, and tail rotor. One of the four flight test prototypes will also be test flown from Yeovil – with a first flight scheduled for 2012 and deliveries expected to begin in 2015. AgustaWestland in the UK will also lead the development of the training infrastructure and courseware for aircrew and ground crew.

Funding secured

[caption id="attachment_4578" align="alignnone" width="207" caption="AW169 will retain key rotorcraft technologies and skills in the UK. (AgustaWestland)."][/caption] The investment by the UK Government is a significant vote of confidence in AgustaWestland at Yeovil – and not only protects current engineering jobs and apprenticeships, but gives ‘seedcorn’ money towards R&D – without which competiveness will ebb away and disappear. Said Yeovil MP David Laws at the announcement: “AW169 is crucial to the future of jobs here and the future of AgustaWestland”. As noted above, the funding divides into a £22m loan on market terms to assist production, along with a £10m grant towards rotorcraft R&D through the Technology Strategy Board. This will go towards a new AW technology programme, Next Generation Vertical Lift (NGVL), which will consist of three R&D projects – looking at main and tail rotor systems, transmissions and gearboxes and flight trials. Taken together then, this funding will ensure that the UK retains key rotorcraft skills in the middle of a defence downturn – as well as acquire new capabilities and strengths for the civil helicopter market.

Inshoring? – the new offshoring?

[caption id="attachment_4589" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Vince Cable: "The reverse is happening" he argues, to aerospace work being lost abroad."][/caption] This securing of the UK’s helicopter industrial base is also significant in that it also repudiates a concern of some critics that the take-over of Westland by Italian giant Finmeccanica would lead to the sidelining and decline of Yeovil. Would as some observers thought, mean that work would disappear offshore? Would Italy asset-strip the UK product portfolio and quietly kill off the Westland brand? It was, some argued, all well and good in the boom years but what about when times were tight, recession loomed and the need to protect home industry was tempting? In fact, as Dr Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business Enterprise and Skills, pointed out, when asked this by Aerospace International – the “reverse is happening”. The Italian parent, with a guarantee of support from UK Government, is to develop the UK as a civil helicopter manufacturing capability. In short, the UK Government has recognised that a UK helicopter industry is a strategic asset that is worth supporting, and that with future civil orders is likely to bring returns far beyond investment now. [caption id="attachment_4580" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Merlin HM2 helicopter under test at Yeovil. Diversifying away from pure military products will help AgustaWestland UK survive lean defence years."][/caption] Why is this? The first is that the UK is an acknowledged centre of excellence for military rotorcraft – with the Lynx and Merlin examples of the world-class industry. Lynx, for example, (though other compound helicopters challenge it) is still the world’s fastest conventional configuration (main and tail rotor) helicopter – and became a worldwide sales hit as the de facto small shipboard helicopter. Reborn as the Lynx Wildcat it looks set to repeat the success. Meanwhile the Merlin EH/AW101 – is now being developed as the HM2 for the Royal Navy.

Market potential

[caption id="attachment_4581" align="alignnone" width="298" caption="Potential market for the AW169 could top 1,000 over 25 years. (AgustaWestland)."][/caption] The second reason why the UK is needed is the projected demand. With the previous larger 15-seat AW139 having gone on to large sales (over 400) – AgustaWestland has two factories – one in the Italy one in the US (and a third set to open in Russia) – to cope with orders. For the AW169 AgustaWestland forecast a market of 1,000 over the next 25 years – though this conceivably could be more. With the AW169, situated between the smaller AW109 and larger AW139 AgustaWestland believe they will hit the sweet spot for a modern, roomy, fully equipped helicopter for the EMS/Parapublic market. Says Graham Cole, chairman of AgustaWestland Ltd: “We are convinced that the AW169 will be a world beater.” He also notes that some 85% of AW169 sales will come outside UK and Italy. The intention is that the 1,000-helicopter market will generate enough sales for a UK civil helicopter production line – something that Britain has not had since the ill-fated Westland 30 – a civil helicopter design developed from the Lynx, of which only 43 were ever produced. As Professor Keith Hayward, Head of Research at the Royal Aeronautical Society notes: “Previously, Government intervention in the UK’s civil helicopter industry was disappointing due to inadequate market research”. [caption id="attachment_4582" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="The ill-fated Westland WG30 first flew in 1979. Only 43 were built. (RAeS/NAL archives)."][/caption] The marketing muscle and experience of AgustaWestland’s Italian civil product line means that it is extremely unlikely that this will happen again. Moreover the world market has changed completely since the WG30 came into being – with civil parapublic and EMS helicopters now being a growth sector. Says Professor Hayward: “This project, unlike Westland’s last adventure in the civil market, is backed by a better understanding of the commercial needs and the experience of its Italian partners in this field.” So while AgustaWestland stresses the immediate benefit of the funding in securing jobs and maintaining critical R&D and skills– it is clear that should the AW169 meet market expectations there will be a UK civil helicopter production line. Graham Cole, Chairman, AgustaWestland Ltd, confirms there is a “commitment” that every UK-bought AW169 will come off a UK production line. Though the company is unwilling to be nailed down to firm dates, the experience of the AW139 means that the AW169 will likely follow a similar path, with an Italian and UK final assembly plant. Further in the future, this could also see other future civil helicopter work directed Yeovil’s way – keeping AgustaWestand UK busy for many years ahead.

Conclusion

[caption id="attachment_4583" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Backing a winner? The AW169 meets Coalition hi-tech manufacturing export goals."][/caption] The AW169 is a key project for AgustaWestland, its suppliers and the UK rotorcraft industrial base. It will be the first large first large civil helicopter to be built in Britain since the WG30 - over 30 years ago. It also meets a number of key UK Coalition Government objectives – retaining hi-tech strategic capability, rebuilding manufacturing industry and with a product that has high export potential. Indeed, as Vince Cable observed on the day: “it demonstrates AgustaWestland [in the UK’s] ambition to diversify into military and civil helicopter markets.” [caption id="attachment_4584" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="An example of previous innovation - a Westland civil tiltrotor design from 1968 - the WE-2. (RAeS/NAL Archives)."][/caption] Furthermore – in a time when some critics are concerned for the future of the UK aerospace sector – having given up capabilities, retired aircraft, or been unable to adapt, this ‘swords into ploughshares’ project promises to add a new aerospace capability that many had thought Britain had given up for good.

Royal Aeronautical Society
26 July 2011