Warsaw Helo Buy Has Manufacturers Scrambling


This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.

With Warsaw embarking on potentially one of the largest rotary-wing buys seen in Europe in more than a decade, Eurocopter and French engine-maker Turbomeca have some catching up to do.

This month, the companies said they plan to partner with Lodz-based Polish Military Aviation Works No. 1, known as WZL 1, in a bid for 70 medium-lift transport helicopters that will replace part of the Polish armed forces' Soviet-era helicopter fleet. If Warsaw were to choose Eurocopter's EC725 Caracal equipped with twin Turbomeca Makila 2 engines, assembly and test of the aircraft and motors would take place at manufacturing facilities to be established in Poland.

The pitch comes as Eurocopter seeks to boost its presence in Central and Eastern Europe. AgustaWestland and Sikorsky already enjoy a firm foothold in Poland following their takeovers of PZL-Swidnik and PZL Mielec, respectively. These facilities are up and running, producing helicopters and components for their respective parents. PZL-Swidnik builds the SW-4 light helicopter and the W-3 Sokol intermediate twin helicopter as well as fuselages for the AgustaWestland AW109 and AW139, while PZL-Mielec produces the M-28 fixed-wing transport aircraft and also builds the Sikorsky S-70i International Black Hawk.

"We are coming later than the others, but we are coming on strong," says Olivier Lambert, Eurocopter senior vice president for sales, noting the company sold 23 EC135s to Poland in 2008 to replace the country's aging fleet of Mi-2s in support of its emergency-medical-service network. Operated by Warsaw-based Lotnicze Pogotowie Ratunkowe, the fleet is distributed among 17 Polish bases, with technical support provided by Warsaw-based Heli Invest, a Eurocopter distributor and certified maintenance center.

Eurocopter's corporate parent, EADS, also has a foothold in Poland since the 2001 takeover of PZL Warsawa-Okecie. The company previously built the Orlik turboprop trainer but is now an aero-structures specialist.

According to the country's new 10-year military modernization plan, Poland plans to purchase 200 helicopters over the next two decades, though senior military officials say the figure is closer to 150, with the first tranche of 85-90 scheduled to be procured by 2022. In addition to the bid for 70 medium-lift utility helicopters, Warsaw will procure at least a dozen new attack helicopters in the next decade to replace Poland's Soviet-era Mi-24 Hinds.

The Polish land forces air mobility chief, Maj. Gen. Dariusz Wronski, says compatibility with NATO forces is a major driver behind the country's planned helicopter replacement. He says requirements for a future assault helicopter include "longer-range, more precision and safer" aircraft.

Under the initial 70-helicopter tender, estimated to be worth €2.5 billion ($3.2 billion), 48 are to be configured for troop transport operations. Another 12 will be used by the navy for anti-submarine warfare and search and rescue (SAR), while the remaining 10 are to be configured solely for SAR.

Eurocopter contends that neither of its competitors' offerings -- the AW149 utility helicopter nor the S-70i International Black Hawk -- is battle-proven, and that the EC725 is closest in size to the helicopters Poland's armed forces fly today. Sikorsky argues otherwise, pointing out that the S-70i is merely a customized version of its UH-60M, which has been used by the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. Sikorsky is also expected to offer its S-70B Seahawk to meet the anti-submarine warfare capability.

Poland is expected to issue a request for proposals in October, with a down-select slated for early 2014. If this schedule can be maintained, Eurocopter says the first Polish EC725 could enter service in late 2015. The first four or five aircraft would be built in France, where Polish engineers and technicians would receive training. A second batch of helicopters would be produced in Poland, with Eurocopter assistance. WZL-1 would then be responsible for producing the rest.

Joseph Saporito, executive vice president of Eurocopter's global supply chain, says while the current WZL 1 facility is geared more toward overhaul than assembly, European investment in establishing a Polish EC725 production line will be significant.

"Our common venture will become a Eurocopter industrial hub for central and Eastern Europe," Saporito says. "It will bring enough work to ensure long-term employment for 300-500 workers in high-profile jobs."

The model is similar to that already established in Brazil, where Eurocopter has expanded the capabilities of its majority-owned subsidiary Helibras, which is currently building 50 EC725s for the Brazilian air force, navy and army. It is also hoped the same facility will produce the civilian version of the aircraft, the EC225, to meet the needs of the Latin American oil and gas market.

For its part, Turbomeca is offering to establish a production line in Poland for its Makila-2 engine and to license MRO activities there. The project would mirror Turbomeca operations in Rio de Janeiro, where in 2008 Brazil's armed forces ordered 50 EC725 helicopters powered by Makila 2 engines to be assembled, tested and overhauled at Turbomeca do Brasil.

For Poland, "We will train them to support all operations and provide them with support to assemble and test the engines and some spares -- roughly 150-160 engines total," says Maxime Faribault, Turbomeca vice president of OEM. "The production phase will be 10 years or so, with the main asset being a test bench for production and license for MRO activities in Poland, which allows support for the next 40 years."

Faribault says the first engine will be produced in France, where training will be provided to Polish engineers, followed by assembly of engines in Poland.

"If it works well in Poland, we could have them repairing civil engines in the future," Faribault says.

WZL 1 was established in 1945 to perform overhaul work for the Polish air force. Today the company works out of an annex at Lodz Airport, performing maintenance and overhaul work on Polish military helicopters including the Mi-2, the Mi-8/17 Hip, Mi-14 Haze and the Mi-35 Hind as well as the U.S.-built Kaman SH-2G SeaSprite, which is in service in small numbers with the Polish navy. It is one of three aircraft overhaul and manufacturing facilities reporting to the Polish defense ministry, in addition to WZL 2 and WZL 3.

"In the last seven years we have done around 130 overhauls and modernizations of helicopters, the most important of which was to prepare for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan," says WZL 1 President Jan Pietowski. "We modernized the aircraft using our own solutions. And we achieved positive financial results."

Under 100% state ownership, WZL 1 posted sales of $56 million in 2012, of which $6 million was profit.

Pietowski says Poland is also interested in developing unmanned helicopters, notably the Polish ILX-27 technology demonstrator built with the Air Force Institute of Technology and Military Aviation Works No. 1, which debuted at the 2012 Berlin Air Show.

"We also want to develop services in civil aviation, and if we enter into this Eurocopter [arrangement], we are hoping it will involve other helicopters, not only military but civil," Pietowski said.

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Helicopters Procurement