Has the UK Helicopter industry seen better days?
In a quiet, rather unremarkable town in the southwest of England called Yeovil – there is a helicopter manufacturing site.
However, this could be under threat as this specialist industry might be slipping from the UK altogether.
Why the jitters though? Well, it seems like the Leonardo Helicopters site, formally AgustaWestland, in Yeovil is not what it once was despite its long history there.
Marcus Fysh, Conservative MP for Yeovil, held a UK parliamentary debate on the UK helicopter industry on 24 January highlighting its importance and also stressing concerns about its decline.
Over the years, the Yeovil site has manufactured the Westland Wessex, the Sea King, the Lynx, the Merlin and now the Wildcat.
One of the biggest blows came in summer 2016 when Boeing was awarded a contract for 50 AH-64E Apaches for the British Army, to be manufactured in the US, rather than opting for the alternative of having Leonardo Helicopters retrofit UK Apaches.
Previously, the AH-64D Apache Longbow kits had been delivered to Leonardo Helicopters UK, known as AgustaWestland at the time, to be assembled. This has long been seen to be a costly exercise to the UK taxpayer.
With this Leonardo is hoping it will gain a support contract for the aircraft. It is currently supporting the AH-64Ds until their end of service in 2023/24.
Another issue, noted by Fysh, is that of the Wildcat airframes.
‘There is a live issue involving the Wildcat airframe jigs, as anyone who has been following it will know. It is a relatively small issue within the overall scheme of the industry, but it is an important signal that we want to be able to manufacture helicopters end-to-end in the Yeovil area,’ he said.
GKN, who manufactures the airframe, has said it will close its site as Leonardo is set to bring this component in- house.
The government currently owns the airframe jigs and tooling to support the job but Leonardo wishes to move this over to its site in Poland.
A decision on this is yet to be made.
Meanwhile, Leonardo is seeking to strengthen its UK-based operations as it now operates as Leonardo MW Ltd.
Leonardo MW Ltd apparently symbolises the Westland helicopters and the Marconi electronic element of the company.
Though the military side may be uncertain, Leonardo and its Yeovil plant play a key role in the production of rotor blades and tail rotor transmission system for the AW169.
Debates and UK parliamentary questioning about the future of this industry are likely to be ongoing but at the moment for those working in the UK-side of the industry there are uncertain times ahead.
What do you think of the state of the UK’s helicopter industry? How do you think it compares with other nations? Let us know in the comments below.