An aircraft which could replace the country’s search and rescue helicopters will become a familiar sight across Somerset’s skies as it undergoes testing.
Yeovil helicopter manufacturer AgustaWestland has built three prototypes of the AW189 aircraft which it hopes will be used in search and rescue operations.
One of the prototypes is in Yeovil undergoing an intensive flying programme, while the others are being tested in Italy and the USA, according to a spokesman for the firm.
He said the intensive flying programme would gather data to enable the AW189 to achieve civil certification in mid-2013.
He added that three companies – Bristow Helicopters, CHC Helicopter and Bond Helicopters – want to provide the search and rescue service and AgustaWestland is offering its helicopters to whoever wins the Department of Transport contract.
The AW189 – which can seat 15 to 18 passengers – is just one of a portfolio of civil helicopters which the company has to offer and a grant from the Government’s Regional Growth Fund would help it strengthen this arm of its business.
The fund is an invention of the coalition Government aimed at supporting projects with significant potential for economic growth that can create jobs.
A Government cash grant would help set up a production line for the AW189 and would not only sustain the existing 3,500 workforce in Yeovil, but potentially create another 1,500 jobs in the supply chain over time.
The company declined to comment on the likely value of any deal but it is understood to be in talks with the Department for Business Innovation and Skills and a decision is expected by the end of the month.
Graham Cole, AgustaWestland’s chairman, said: “We are hoping to hear on the UK search and rescue order early next year. The first order from the UK will be terrific but then we hope for more than 200 search and rescue helicopters around the world and they will come from Yeovil, which is terrific. I think we are on the cusp of something that could be really very significant.”
An AgustaWestland spokesman said it was competing against rivals Sikorsky and Eurocopter for the search and rescue contract which should be announced by next spring.