Philadelphia plant wins $176 million Navy helicopter deal

By JOSEPH N. DISTEFANO | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: January 14, 2020

PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — AgustaWestland Philadelphia Corp. has been chosen over four rivals, winning a $176.5 million contract to build an initial 32 TH-73A training helicopters for the U.S. Navy.

The deal boosts orders at the 650-worker plant, which is owned by the Italy-based Leonardo industrial group. If all goes well, the company could gain orders for an additional 98 aircraft by 2024, boosting the total contract award to $648 million.

The training craft will serve pilots and maintenance workers for the Marines and Coast Guard, along with the Navy, said James F. Geurts, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, in a statement. He said the deal helps "ensure the readiness of our Naval Aviators for decades to come.”

The helicopters are based on his company’s civilian TH-119 model, said Alessandro Profumo, chief executive of AgustaWestland’s owner, Leonardo, in a statement. “Leonardo is thrilled” to be the Navy’s “long-term partner,” he added. “We are proud to be a core contributors to the future of U.S. defense.”

The new helicopters will replace the Navy’s aging Sea Ranger trainers. Besides the copters, the contract highlights include spare parts, maintenance equipment, and training and data, according to Naval Air Systems Command, based in Patuxent River, Maryland, which oversees the training program. Some 87 percent of the work is to be done at the Philadelphia plant, with the rest spread between sites in Texas and abroad.

As the company sought U.S. military work, Leonardo has updated the 40-year-old plant adjoining city-owned Northeast Philadelphia Airport, adding a training facility and 166 jobs in a $125 million expansion since 2018.

Once built, the helicopters will be maintained from the Navy’s helicopter facility in Milton, Fla., said William Hunt, Leonardo’s top official at the Philadelphia plant and a managing director. The contract is “a ringing endorsement” for Leonardo Helicopters and its training program, said managing director Gian Piero Cutillo in a statement.

Besides Italy and the U.S., Leonardo has plants in the U.K. and Poland, spreading its work among NATO allies. With sales of $13 billion last year, it is one of the biggest industrial companies based in Italy.

AugstaWestland is the second-largest of three major helicopter factories in the Philadelphia area, all of which are also served by a network of regional and national suppliers. All are now dependent on U.S. military contracts.

The Boeing works in Ridley Park, Delaware County, which employs around 4,600, upgrades Chinook CH-47 helicopters for the Army, Air Force, and for allied foreign military and civilian users. The plant also builds tilt-rotor Ospreys, which take off and land like helicopters but fly like planes, for the U.S. Marine Corps and other users.

The Trump administration attempted to cut spending for Chinooks and other 20th century weapons that were popular for American wars in Asia and Europe, and instead spend more on long-range and cyberweapons for use against China and Russia. But the administration ran into united opposition from the region’s Democratic and Republican Congress members, and work on the Chinooks has continued for now.

Lockheed Martin last year tried to close its Sikorsky helicopter plant near Coatesville, which employs 500. The workers had recently built Marine One helicopters for use by the President, but LockheedMartin chief executive Marillyn Hewson, blaming a lack of civilian orders, was preparing to shut the works and consolidate production at LockheedMartin facilities in Connecticut and elsewhere. But a call from President Trump, who considers Pennsylvania an important part of his re-election strategy, was followed by a pledge from LockheedMartin to find new work and keep Coatesville open for now.

The Leonardo and Sikorsky plants are non-union. Boeing production workers in Ridley Park are represented by a local of the Machinists union, which also represents airline maintenance workers at nearby Philadelphia International Airport.

Although they are frequent competitors, the companies sometimes work together. Boeing and Leonardo are partners on MH-139 Grey Wolf military helicopters, which are based on Leonardo’s AW139 civilian design. The company has sold more than 1,000 AW139s, including more than 200 built in Philadelphia, and others from Europe.

The Air Force last year said it would buy up to 82 Grey Wolf helicopters in a $2.4 billion deal to replace its aging Hueys in defending U.S. nuclear weapons bases in North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, and to transport politicians and other “very important persons.” The helicopters are to be assembled at Leonardo’s AgustaWestland plant in Northeast Philly, with military components added at Boeing’s Ridley plant. They are armed with heavy machine guns.

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