-T / T / +T | Comment(s)

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Agusta's Western(land) Expansion: Philadelphia

Reflections from a visit to the manufacturer's U.S. plant, where the AW169 will join the AW139 and AW119 on the production line.

By Andrew Parker, Editor-in-Chief

AgustaWestland is making its expectations for success in the North American market very clear. With opportunities in the U.S. government markets expected to top $20 billion over the next 15 years, according to AgustaWestland North America Chairman and CEO R. Scott Rettig, the company seems bullish in the face of sequestration issues and its own internal problems.

AgustaWestland – at least its North American unit – appears unfazed by the February ouster of its former CEO Bruno Spagnolini and former head of parent company Finmeccanica, Guiseppe Orsi, who are facing trial in Italy following charges of bribery from an Indian procurement contract for 12 AW101s in VIP configuration.

Along with the competitions for the U.S. Army’s Armed Aerial Scout (AAS), VXX Presidential Helicopter and U.S. Air Force UH-1N replacements, foreign military sales (FMS) “are becoming a low-hanging fruit for all of our competitors in the U.S. market space. We have broken through with a sale to the Egyptians, and we look to follow through with a number of other interests,” Rettig said. The company has delivered two AW139s to the Egyptian Air Force with a third scheduled for handover in July.

One of my first impressions when walking the production line at AgustaWestland’s manufacturing plant in Philadelphia was how ready to accept this challenge the North American subsidiary is. Clean shop floors and organized workspaces, toolboxes with electronic tags that tell you what’s missing at the end of the day, rows of neatly stacked parts bins all color-coded, supporting warehouse space – everything one might expect of a post-millennium production facility. But from all outward appearances, AgustaWestland Philadelphia also seems primed for further growth, evidenced by a recently established second AW139 production line and gear up to build the AW169.

AgustaWestland Philadelphia CEO William Hunt pointed out that the location has experienced 72 percent growth in revenue over the past seven years, from $217 million in fiscal year 2005 to $771 million in FY12. The number of employees has risen from 170 in June 2006 to around 560 people currently, “and in terms of aircraft deliveries we’ve increased our production rates by 42 percent.” AgustaWestland has invested more than $110 million in the United States in the past six years, Hunt added.

During a tour of the facility, Hunt showed the spot where the AW169 will call home starting in May 2014. He explained that the existing production line is made up of various stations, and each helicopter stays at a station for eight days before it moves up the line – regardless of how simple or complex the tasks at a given stop.

During a press briefing before the tour, Rettig noted some of the potential growth areas that the manufacturer is targeting in the military and parapublic markets. These include competitions for the AAS, VXX and UH-1N replacements. He also mentioned the U.S. Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, Customs & Border Patrol, Coast Guard and the FMS program as areas where AgustaWestland is seeking to expand. Retting pointed out that the North American unit operates under a Special Security Agreement (SSA), which “allows us to maintain a classified clearance and bid on U.S. military programs.”

The national security helicopter “is a venture for us with Philadelphia,” Rettig continued. “We believe over the next 20 years that this notion of a non-combat ‘national security helicopter’ will be very relevant to the U.S. government and to other nations. The 139, 169 and 189 family of aircraft map to that nicely as aircraft with terrific price points. The commercial consumptions in the market should drive the costs down in competition with our U.S. competitors, who are – broadly speaking – focused on their combat assets, bringing V-22s and Black Hawks to the market space. We don’t believe that level of combat capability, especially when CONUS [contiguous United States] requirements are in play, is necessary.”

Maryland State Police officers were on hand during the tour, which also involved a peek at various hangars, a weather simulation building, paint booths and avionics integration area. Maj. Frank Lioi, assistant bureau chief for MSP – who said that he’s relatively new to the unit – described the difference between operating the AW139 and the unit’s 20-year-old Eurocopter AS365 Dauphin as “night and day.” MSP flies a multi-role operational profile that consists of around 80 percent EMS and 20 percent law enforcement. “We can get more equipment on [the AW139], we can transport more patients, and we’re going to have two flight paramedics instead of one – those types of things,” he said.

At the end of the tour, pilot Pat McKernan and copilot Steve Labows took a group of reporters up in an AW139 in the colors of Helicopters New Zealand (HNZ). After liftoff we headed down the Delaware River, with views of downtown Philadelphia, Interstate 95, rows of housing developments and some of the other interesting landscape features around the city. The flight ended with a circling around the AgustaWestland complex at PNE to get the proper perspective of how expansive the site is.

Follow the link to see a video of an AW139 performing a takeoff procedure.

Live chat by BoldChat