Despite the complexities involved with the Covid-19 pandemic, Leonardo Helicopters’ U.S. operations have progressed on multiple fronts with the addition of a new facility for the AW609 program, preparations to open its new training center in the upcoming weeks, and plans to formally hand over the first TH-73A single-engine trainers to the U.S. Navy shortly.
“It’s been a tough year, but we've continued moving the business forward,” said William Hunt, CEO of Leonardo’s AgustaWestland Philadelphia Corp. “We continued being successful with our customers and especially around the customer support training.”
A hallmark of Leonardo’s activities over the past year has been the completion of a customer training center in Philadelphia. Set to open in upcoming weeks, the center represents the bulk of an $80 million investment Leonardo is making in its Philadelphia operations. It is consolidating training activities in Philadelphia to better provide a one-stop-shop approach.
Hunt noted how customer support training “has continued to be a growing part of our business in a lot of different ways” and said having its range of activities on one campus in Philadelphia has been part of its strategy for some time. He cited the company’s “vision where we could have everything on one campus that would be able to show the customer the overall capabilities of Leonardo Helicopters.”
This includes the ability to show all of the training capabilities in one place, he said. Leonardo moved the level-D AW139 simulator from Whippany, New Jersey, to Philadelphia and brought in a new AW609/AW169 trainer that CAE developed based on the CAE 3000 Series featuring roll-on/roll-off capabilities to allow for quick interchange between the AW609 and AW169 cockpit.
The company also made space available and provisions for a third potential trainer down the road. The facility formerly was used as a warehouse for Leonardo's Philadelphia operations and was refurbished for use as a training center.
Training at the new Philadelphia center has already begun with the U.S. Air Force on the MH-139, which is based on the AW139. Hunt conceded that the Air Force and others have queried about what may be placed in the open spot, and his answer has been, “It really depends on what the market is driving.”
He noted that the center delivers other models produced in Italy, including the AW189 and AW109 Trekker. The latter is one of the models most asked about from operators in North, Central, and South America, he noted, but added, “No decision has been made about that. We're just staying flexible in terms of what the market drives.”
At the same time, Leonardo is continuing to progress through the certification effort of the AW609 tiltrotor, Hunt said, “We've been focusing heavily on the industrialization of that program.” This involves looking beyond the flight-test program and to the point where the company can deliver production-ready aircraft, he said. As part of that effort, the company recently leased an additional 32,000-sq-ft hangar at its Philadelphia campus that will serve as the future home for the tiltrotor program.
Situated about 100 yards from where the current development program is, the new hangar, Hunt said, “is perfect for the 609 program,” in that it is conducive for a winged aircraft. “We've been building a wing aircraft inside of a helicopter factory, which has its challenges at times.” The new hangar has an unobstructed door, which he said is “very advantageous” with a fixed-wing aircraft, compared with the current facility that has pillars between the doors.
He expects the program to transition over the next few months to its new home as certain improvements to the hangar are completed to ensure it can handle the power requirements for the AW609 program. “But we’re moving through all of that and that’ll be a big opportunity for us because it will also free up some of our production space.”
Meanwhile, the company has continued with the test program with two AW609s (aircraft one and four) flying in Italy and one (aircraft three) flying in Philadelphia. Leonardo plans shortly to add aircraft five into the flight-test program and aircraft six, the production version that will be destined for customer Bristow, is in production.
“That's really where the industrialization starts, because as we move through the test program, as we find improvements, we're incorporating them as we go. Those are all being incorporated into aircraft five and six to allow us to have the most up-to-date configuration.”
As for certification, he wasn’t ready yet to lay out an adjusted timeline. Leonardo is “still working on some sensitive pieces that we want to get cleared up with [the FAA] in terms of finalization,” Hunt said and estimated that the company would have more of a line of sight on that timeline in the next few months. “The program continues to move forward. We're still very excited about the opportunity to get to the end of the test program. We continue to work with the FAA every single day.”
Noting the challenges with such work during the pandemic, Hunt added, “We've seen a lot of progress with the FAA…I'm going to say the last five months or so in terms of remote engagements with them and being able to walk us through some complex issues. So we're making progress.”
In addition, Leonardo’s Philadelphia site has been busy ramping up on production of the TH-73A as it prepares to deliver the first of 32 of the model scheduled for this year. In January 2020, the Navy selected the aircraft, based on the civil AW119 that is solely produced in Philadelphia, to replace the existing fleet of Bell TH-57s.
The initial contract award was for 32 aircraft, with future contracts anticipated to cumulatively bring the order to 130 aircraft valued at $648.1 million by 2024. Leonard also is under contract for spares, support, and training.
Leonardo won the contract over offerings of Bell’s single-engine 407 and Airbus Helicopters’ light-twin H135.
Leonardo is coordinating with the service on the timing of that delivery, as well as the location. With the pandemic introducing logistical issues, Hunt said that may take place in Florida rather than Philadelphia. But the anticipation is “deliveries will begin sometime right around the corner,” he said.
The team in Philadelphia has been fine-tuning production since the configuration is different from the civil AW119. “One of the keys for us, even in that program, is getting all of those nuances nailed down such that we're increasing our productivity and moving towards the three-a-month, four-a-month rates that are necessary to provide our contractual obligation,” Hunt told AIN.
By 2022, Leonardo is facing an obligation of 36 aircraft. “Three a month out of the [119/TH-73A] line are going directly to the Navy, besides all the rest of the big customers we're supporting out,” he said. By early April, Leonardo had already inducted the first 11 into production.
In the meantime, Leonardo has stationed two TH-73As at Vertex Aerospace in Crestview, Florida, near the future home of the helicopters at Naval Air Station Whiting Field, where the company has already begun to provide instructor training in preparation for the induction of the aircraft into service. That advanced training was part of the original requirements laid out for the contract.
“We did receive a request to provide that training in Florida rather than in Philadelphia,” he said, again out of health and safety concerns.
With the training already ongoing, the Navy has had the opportunity to begin to familiarize and fly the helicopter, he noted. “They're really flying the aircraft a lot. And the good news is that the aircraft has been doing very well. We were meeting all of the training requirements…We are receiving very, very good feedback.”
As this is going on, Leonardo is moving forward with plans to provide customer support, including establishing a temporary repair station at Florida's Peter Prince Airport. At the same time, the company is working with Santa Rosa County to become an anchor tenant of a new facility at Whiting Aviation Park that is to be completed in 2022 and will encompass 100,000 sq ft. This will give Leonardo an on-site customer support service center to support the Navy program. Plans call for the use of local assets and technical graduates to grow the base at the center. Leonardo is currently in the throes of assessing architectural designs for the new center, he said.
With all of this activity, Leonardo is continuing to staff up, including anticipating adding about 100 workers, growing to 900 this year, including in Philadelphia, as well field support.