Leonardo helicopter
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Yeovil: home of British helicopters

The Somerset town of Yeovil has officially been recognised as the ‘Home of British Helicopters’. Rachel Ramsay went to meet the AW149 – Leonardo Helicopters’ newest legend

Few towns anywhere in the world can be so inextricably tied up with its role in British aviation history as Yeovil. For more than a century, as the home of Westland, the Somerset town has given life to icon after icon. The Lysander. The Scout and Wasp. The Lynx. The Sea King (made here under licence). And now its newest ‘multirole battlefield platform’, the AW149. But I’ll come back to that.

Today it may be known by the name of its Italian mother company, Leonardo, but the Westland name stretches back a long way. Originally called Petters, the company began life making engines for agricultural vehicles.

At the outbreak of WWI it branched out into making biplanes (as you do), setting up the Westland Aircraft Works in 1915, and subsequently acquiring land to the west of Yeovil to expand its aeronautical endeavours. ‘West land’ – get it?

More than a century later, now part of Leonardo, the Westland name lives on in the ‘AW’ prefix – which is also a nod to its merger, in 2000, with another Italian company, Agusta. There are now 3,000 people working on its site at the appropriately named Lysander Road.

There are very few organisations around the world, and Leonardo is the only one in the UK, which retain what’s known as end-to-end capability – that is, the breadth and depth of skills, tools, processes and infrastructure needed to design, develop, test, manufacture, support and deliver training for rotary wing aircraft. In the defence sphere, that’s not just a ‘nice to have’ – this capability is key for responding quickly to emerging threats.

Leonardo has the breadth and depth of skills, tools, processes and infrastructure needed to design, develop, test, manufacture, support and deliver training for rotary wing aircraft
Leonardo's impressive AW149

It’s immediately clear, from everyone I speak to, that there’s a lot of love for Leonardo and the projects the team are working on. Helen Haxell, the spokesperson who kindly arranged my visit, and Holly Ryan, a sales and marketing graduate, who’s been with Leonardo for six months, both have an infectious enthusiasm for helicopters, not merely for, well, just how cool they are (“What’s more exciting in this world than helicopters?” says Helen, to murmurs of agreement from everyone in the room).

Helen and Holly are both from military families, and they’re acutely aware of the role these machines play in keeping their loved ones safe in war zones. Mike Morrisroe, Head of UK Campaigns, who has an engineering background and a keen appreciation for the intricacies of the blades and transmissions systems built on site, also joined us.

Crews come to Yeovil from all over the place to train on the helicopters that are produced here, bringing an international flavour to this corner of Somerset. In the canteen, I spotted a group of flight-suited, epauletted chaps from the Portuguese Air Force.

There’s a Polish Merlin being noisily thrown around overhead as Helen and Mike talk me through the company’s latest projects. But it’s not the Merlin that I’m here to see.

Leonardo is in the midst of pitching a formidable new machine, the AW149, to the UK MOD as part of its New Medium Helicopter programme. This competition will determine which machine will replace the Puma, and three other helicopters currently used by the MOD (the Bell 212 and 412, and the Dauphin).

Crews come from far and wide to train on helicopters at Yeovil. The addition of the AW149 will help manoeuvring service personal and/or materials in and out of confined areas

Leonardo is already investing in the single site logistics hub, production line and training that it’ll need if it wins the contract.

Already flown by the Egyptian Navy and the Royal Thai Army, and with an order of 32 for the Polish Air Force, the AW149 is the latest generation multirole helicopter. It fits into the ‘lift’ category of the MOD’s three main uses for helicopters – lift, find, attack.

It can be used for all kinds of things, including transport, ‘fast roping’, search and rescue, casualty evacuation, cargo pallet resupply, command and control and close air support, as well as being fitted out as a gunship. But fundamentally, it’s built for getting troops and/or materials in and out of confined areas where the Chinook is too big, or where the Wildcat doesn’t have the capacity.

The AW149 is designed to be operated in the most extreme environments imaginable. There are inlet particle separators to stop dust and sand getting into the engines.

The paint is anti-corrosion, meaning it can withstand the severe demands of a maritime environment. The temperature range it’s tested to endure is frankly astonishing: from -40 to +55°C.

There’s a Full Ice Protection System that allows flight into known icing conditions. It’s tested not just on winter campaigns, but by flying along behind a Chinook loaded up with water (dyed yellow so that ice accumulations show up) that uses a ‘Helicopter Icing Spray System’ (HISS) to squirt different parts of the aircraft with varying amounts of water to generate icing conditions.

Of course, it can also be armoured, and to the civilian, the promo blurb makes exciting reading: The large sliding doors support fast roping and hoist operations, enabling troop insertion and extraction on the hover while allowing simultaneous cover fire from window-mounted machine guns.

Before we head out into the hangar to see the helicopter, we watch a video that hammers home the kind of scenarios this machine could find itself in.  

When I come face to face with the demonstrator, at the far end of a hangar chock-full of Wildcats and 101s in various stages of being built or modified, I immediately note the absence of weaponry.

That’s because, to accommodate its array of possible roles, Leonardo has put together a series of off-the-shelf ‘kits’ that military customers can choose from, based on their needs.

One of the kits is guided and unguided rockets, with others including radars, cameras, fast-roping frames, winches, inlet barrier filters, defensive aid systems, different radio systems, flotation, anti-icing and so on.

Some are ‘role-removable’, meaning they can be removed when not needed.

Yeovil airfield Leonardo
Around 3,000 people now work at the Yeovil site including operating the airfield tower

I’m shown around the aircraft by Mark Hazzard, Senior Flight Test Engineer, who slides open the huge side doors and describes how easily the crashworthy seats can be reconfigured to suit different missions.

It’s roughly the same external footprint as the Bell 212, he explains, but it’ll comfortably carry up to 19 lightly equipped troops or 16 fully laden.

The fuselage is the same width as the three-engined AW101, which, at 16 tonnes, is twice its weight – so there’s enough room to carry stretchers side-on without having to shuffle them about.

With a useful payload of 3,800kg, it’s also handy for transporting cargo pallets, and there’s a rear luggage tunnel that can be fitted with an auxiliary tank to add an extra hour or so onto its five-hour endurance.

The AW149 is capable of carrying an underslung load of 2,800kg which, in British Army terms, means it’ll comfortably lift the 105mm Howitzer, plus a six-person gun crew in the cabin.

It’s quite high off the ground, which makes it safer when landing on unprepared surfaces. And it’s fast, with a maximum cruise of 155kt and VNE at 169kt. Pilots talk about how smooth the aircraft is at high speeds.

‘Survivability’ is a term you’ll see in a lot of the promotional material, for good reason. For a start, Exhaust Infrared Suppression helps it evade infrared missiles.

But perhaps even more impressive is the fact that the whole transmission system (not just the main gearbox) has a ‘run-dry’ time of a staggering 50 minutes at 100kt, meaning that total loss of gearbox oil is no longer a ‘land immediately’ or even ‘land as soon as possible’ situation.

In a military context that means more than just being able to get to an airfield or suitable landing site. It’ll keep going for long enough that, potentially, it could get you out of enemy territory.

Rachel gets to sit in the cockpit – a real highlight!

The highlight of the day comes when Mark invites me to climb into the pilot’s seat to check out the colourful array of avionics. The cockpit uses an open avionics architecture, with the software behind the glass made in-house.

This means software and capability upgrades can be inserted at a lower cost, without the need to go to a third party. These aircraft will be in service for several decades, and needs will inevitably change in that time, so it pays to be able to make such changes quickly and (relatively) inexpensively.

The cockpit is designed to lighten pilots’ load as much as possible, to enable them to focus on the mission – the thing can practically land itself. There are even externally mounted cameras, including one looking down the tail towards the fuselage, so that you can get a clear view of any issues that might pop up as warning lights.

The AW149 is up against some stiff competition in the MOD’s NMH competition: the Airbus H175M, the Boeing Grey Wolf and the Sikorsky Black Hawk. But 60% of the UK’s current operational helicopter fleet has been made in Yeovil. Wandering around the sprawling complex, replete with reminders of its illustrious aviation heritage and with MOD offices right here on site, I can’t help thinking that they’d be mad to choose anyone else.



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