Leonardo Helicopters is mounting a sustained sales push for the AW149 medium-lift multirole military helicopter. Designed and built from the ground up as a military helicopter, the AW149 is a larger, more powerful derivative of the AW139.
Then-AgustaWestland (now Leonardo Helicopter Division) publicly launched the AW149 multirole helicopter in July 2006 at the Farnborough Air Show, but after an unsuccessful bid to win an order for the Turkish Utility Helicopter Program (TUHP) requirement and following the failure to win an order in Poland, the AW149 marketing effort was scaled back.
Nick Whitney, director of UK sales and export campaigns at Leonardo Helicopters UK, told AIN, “For a while, the AW149 got a bit superseded by a commercial product, the 189. The demand was for a civil certified variant, and since the 149 had been developed from the ground up as a military aircraft, the AW189 was born, based on the 149. But now we’re firmly back offering the military 149. We see a good potential market for that product.”
The 8.6-tonne AW149 is marketed as an alternative to the Sikorsky S70/UH-60 Black Hawk and the Airbus Helicopters Puma/Super Puma family. It fits in the Leonardo product range between the 6.4-tonne AW139M (which can carry 15 passengers or up to 10 fully equipped troops), and the 10.6-tonne NH90 (which accommodates 20 fully equipped troops).
The AW149 carries 16 fully equipped troops in modern crashworthy seats with a fully crashworthy structure, and is capable of fulfilling a variety of roles, including troop transport, external load lifting, CASEVAC, SAR and combat SAR, fire support, reconnaissance, surveillance, and command and control.
It is fully day/night capable with a single-pilot NVG-compatible low-workload "glass cockpit." An advanced open-architecture fully integrated mission system enables the quick and cost-effective integration of customer-specific avionics and mission/weapon systems. The aircraft will be fitted with an integrated Defensive Aids Suite (DAS) and will be able to carry a sensor suite that could include the Osprey radar, the SAGE electronic support measures (ESM) system, and a MAIR missile warner, all from Leonardo.
Compared to the Super Puma and S-70 Black Hawk, the AW149 is “a more modern design, with lower costs of operation and through-life costs—a modern and therefore reliable and cheaper-to-operate aircraft,” Whitney explained. Further cost savings result from the AW149 being based on the existing AW139. It has a high degree of commonality with the AW139/169/189 family of commercial helicopters.
A version of the AW149, designated TUHP149, was submitted as a candidate for the $4 billion, 109-aircraft Turkish Utility Helicopter Program (TUHP) for the Turkish Armed Forces, and the type was offered to meet the Polish Armed Forces’ multirole helicopter requirement.
The Italian Air Force considered the AW149 for search-and-rescue duties but chose the lighter AW139M (HH-139M) instead. Whitney explained that the “HH-139M has some militarization, but was not developed as a true military helicopter, which the 149 was. It just has some [addtional] crashworthiness, crashworthy seats, and some military systems.”
Thailand has reportedly ordered five AW149s for the Royal Thai Army, and four for the Royal Thai Police, thereby becoming the first export customer. Though the Thais have released photos of the Army aircraft in service, Leonardo Helicopters has refused to discuss or even confirm the order.
In April 2019, there were reports that the Egyptian Navy had signed for around 20 AW149s, with options for 10 more, reportedly after a competition with the Airbus NH Industries (NHI) NH90. The Egyptian Navy plans to use the helicopters for land-based and ship-borne troop transport, and search and rescue missions, basing them on its new French-built Mistral-class amphibious assault ships—Gamal Abdel Nasser (L1010) and Anwar El Sadat (L1020). Leonardo Helicopters has refused to confirm the reported Egyptian order.
Today, Leonardo Helicopters is promoting the AW149 as a potential replacement for the UK Royal Air Force’s fleet of Airbus Helicopters Puma HC.Mk 2s starting in 2025, and perhaps for some of the bigger AW101 Merlin HM.Mk 2 and HC.Mk 4/4As operated by the Royal Navy. These are due for replacement in 2035.
If the AW149 is chosen by the MoD, production could be transferred to the legacy AgustaWestland factory in Yeovil, in southwest England, from the plant in Vergiate, Italy, and Leonardo hopes that a UK-buy could influence other possible buyers. “There are potential customers in the MENA region and in other areas. The truth is that if we can start to generate some interest from the UK customer they become a reference customer. A lot of countries follow what the UK does, which is why we see them as quite important at this time,” Whitney said.
A sale to the UK would thereby solve two problems for Leonardo Helicopters, establishing a lead customer for the AW149 and securing work for Yeovil in the longer term.