27 Jul 15. I had the great pleasure last week attending a reception held in London to celebrate 100 years since the Westland Aircraft Company was founded in Yeovil in 1915 and that is today AgustaWestland, the large Anglo/Italian helicopter manufacturing subsidiary of Italian industrial and engineering group Finmeccanica S.p.A.
As a manufacturing company the UK operation of AgustaWestland can hardly be considered unique in that it is still around to celebrate one hundred years after its foundation. Other examples of large British based engineering companies that spring to mind are Rolls-Royce, formed in 1906 and GKN, whose three founding companies Guest, Keen and Nettlefold merged in 1902 and which can trace some of its roots back as far as 1759.
Westland is certainly unique in one respect – that of being the only British aircraft manufacturer that went through the transition of change from manufacturing fixed wing aircraft to that of helicopters and that notwithstanding having merged with the Italian helicopter manufacturer Agusta in 2000, still has a particularly interesting corporate and industry history to recount.
What follows is only meant to be a potted history for those such as myself who are interested in such things. Indeed, the history of what became Westland in 1915 is already well documented not only in the privately circulated ‘The Story of Petters’ (written by Percy Petter in 1933) but also by the ‘Westland Aircraft since 1915’ (written by Derek N James and published in 1991) and that I have made extensive use of in reminding myself of certain past Westland events. I am thus extremely grateful to the author of this excellent and rewarding book.
Built around the fascinating story of the Petter family and of others such as Robert Bruce I suspect that if nothing else these two separate accounts of Westland history provide a full and fascinating record of how from family owned ironmongers shop beginnings in Yeovil around 150 years ago, subsequent acquisitions of a castings operation and formation of an agricultural machinery manufacturing business during the 1870’s, design of an oil engine in the mid 1890’s that would also formed the beginnings of a financially disastrous foray into the manufacturing of what was then called ‘horseless carriages’ a few years later my specific interest here is that Westland was founded by the two Petter brothers in 1915 to build fixed winged aircraft.
As founders of the Westland Aircraft Company Percival and Ernest Petter were true entrepreneurs. Both were prepared to take risk and neither would take no for an answer. By now predominantly a manufacturer of oil engines and noticing that there was a shortage in engineering and manufacturing resources required for war work the Petter Bros decided to give over the new Yeovil facility to war work.
Change happened fast and from the Admiralty came the request to build seaplanes. Having quickly collected a sufficient number of draughtsmen and craftsmen required to achieve this that is exactly what, along with many other aircraft types, Westland did for the rest of the Great War. Initially it was aircraft designed by other manufacturers such as Short Bros, Sopwith, de-Havilland and famously, Vickers for which Westland built the Vimy that the Westland Aircraft Company made its name. However, in 1917 Westland built its first own designed aircraft in the form of a small single seat fighter, Wagtail.
This together a modified version of the D.H.9A also known as the ‘Ninack’ established Westland as an aircraft design and manufacturing company in its own right.
By the end of the Great War in 1918 it is worth recalling that the Royal Air Force which had in that year been established in its own right as being separate from Admiralty responsibility had no fewer than 22,500 aircraft, 700 airfields and 290,000 personnel. Clearly, in the years that immediately followed while air power was perceived as being a hugely important in terms of future defence capability economic restraints ensured that there was little money available to spend on new aircraft and new types. Some new planes did emerge though and Westland was at the forefront of design technology. The Widgeon stands out as one and that as a monoplane as opposed to biplane pointed the way forward into what would eventually come.
Here’s another interesting fact that I discovered in reading up for this piece. Formed in 1926 as a means to hold lectures for ground engineers and importantly, to meet the new Air Ministry examination syllabus the Westland Aircraft Society would within just two months of its foundation become only the second branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society – albeit one that right up until 1963 retained a separate existence in terms of rules and procedures before it too came into line with other branches of the Society.
Different people will have different views about the various aircraft built by Westland in the inter-war period and of what they would claim to be the best aircraft to have been built by the company. For the record mine would undoubtedly be the Wapiti. Not only was the all metal structured Westland Wapiti possibly the first British built aircraft to be built along a fixed track assembly system and have a supply chain system that looks rather like a very early version of what we later called ‘just-in-time’. Whilst this was a biplane the Wapiti was hugely successful not just in the UK but selling to countries such as Australia, Canada, China and South Africa. The Wapiti, a light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft, was also supplied to what would later (in 1932) become the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I might add that there is a beautifully preserved example of a Westland Wapiti to be seen in the Air Force Museum in Riyadh.
Various other new aircraft designs followed and these, along with significant sub-contract work for amongst others, Hawker-Siddeley which had grown under the guidance of Tommy Sopwith kept Westland very busy. The Petter family hold on Westland ebbed away after 1937 following the retirement following a boardroom split over a possible acquisition of Sir Ernest Petter although Edward Petter remained as technical director until he too resigned in 1944 following a conflict with the board only to join English Electric where he would later, under Sir George Nelson, be part responsible for the development of the Canberra Bomber. His last full aircraft design was that of the Folland Gnat (the first aircraft used by the Royal Air Force Red Arrows display team) of which 449 examples were built in the UK or India.
The Lysander, Whirlwind, Welkin and eventually, the Wyvern, the latter being the last Westland designed fixed wing aircraft produced by the company, followed. By 1946 the original oil engine business had been sold to RA Lister in Dursley and in a part diversification response the company established Normalair in the same year for the purpose of having responsibility for research and development and air control valve equipment. The last contracted design fixed wing aircraft to be built was a Seafire which emerged from the Yeovil factory in late 1946 and with Wyvern development beset with technical problems mainly due to its Armstrong Siddeley Python gas turbine engine design linked to a contra-rotating propeller only 69 of a total 124 aircraft built went into RAF or Royal Navy squadron service, the last of which left the factory in 1956.
From that time on while the principle business activity was repair and refurbishment and, in the case of the Gloucester Meteor jet, modification of fixed wing aircraft the main development work surrounded rotary aircraft. I am not going to list the range of achievements that followed the partnership arrangement with Sikorsky and that led to the WS-51 (Dragonfly) the WS-55, Whirlwind, Wessex and Sea Kings that all emerged in some way or another from the partnership with Sikorsky and that were all substantially modified in terms of power units for use with the UK armed forces, the rationalisation of the UK helicopter and aerospace industry that brought with it production of the Bristol Belvedere into Westland and the acquisition of Saunders-Roe. These matters are very well covered in the Derek N James biography of Westland. There were other partnerships and arrangements too such as with Bell and Agusta and also with British Hovercraft Corporation in which Westland was part owner with Vickers. The Wasp came out of Saunders Roe but the Lynx was a completely Westland design. Later the company would build 48 Puma helicopters for the RAF under licence from Sud Aviation in France.
Sadly by the mid 1980’s Westland found itself struggling financially and it was clear that the company needed new funding if it was to survive. The rest, meaning the squabble that would all but end the ministerial careers of Michael Heseltine and the late Leon Britain over how this might be best achieved, the battle between two senior ministers in the Thatcher Cabinet and that of the offer from a UTC Sikorsky/Fiat partnership and what was known as the European consortium is the stiff of history. Westland survived on the back of new funding and orders from India.
But the story does not end there and in 1988 GKN acquired the 22% stake in Westland previously held by Fiat. And will I ever forget being summoned into the office of a former CEO of GKN in Cleveland Row in 1994 to be told in that they proposed to acquire the rest of Westland. What an excellent purchase for GKN this was even if they only retained it for six years. It was during this time that the EH101 Merlin helicopter, a partnership with the Italian company Agusta was dominating the rotary scene at Yeovil. A brilliant aircraft it was and remains too. Westland has as I say built a large variety of rotary aircraft many of which have been in partnership. There is nothing wrong with this and in doing so sovereign capability at Yeovil has remained intact.
The above was only meant to be a short potted history of celebration of what is a household name company. As AgustaWestland celebrates the old company’s one hundredth anniversary it continues to build the EH101 for the international market. Currently AW is building 16 of what are now termed the AW101 helicopter for Norway – these to be used in the search and rescue (SARS) role. Norway also has an additional six options.
Assembly of the AW159 helicopter which is also known as the Lynx Wildcat for the British Army and the Royal Navy and also for South Korea is I believe now about halfway through a combined 70 aircraft unit production plan. This will take production through until 2017 and the hope is that other export orders will follow over the next year.
The Yeovil factory is also building the AW189 helicopter which, along with the Sikorsky S-92, will now be increasingly used by a private sector company charged with taking operation of UK Search and Rescue activities away from the UK military and that have already begun to replace Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Sea King helicopters that have been doing such a superb job for over thirty years.
AgustaWestland is doing well enough for now then. Of course it would like to be doing even better and in terms of engineering, capability, efficiency and skills the operation the operation at Yeovil is very impressive.
While the future in the rotary game is no easier to predict than for that of fixed wing or for that matter remotely piloted (note that Westland was engaged in the design of several remotely piloted helicopters as long back as the 1970’s – Mote, Wisp and Wildeye amongst them for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering purposes) I remain confident that as part of Finmeccanica the future for AgustaWestland looks more than sound enough.
Sixteen years ago when the AgustaWestland announced their proposed merger the two companies had combined sales of about £1.5bn. At that time I believe that Westland had produced profits of around £80 million in the previous year and Agusta around £47m. Despite this being a tough industry and one where there is a degree of international overcapacity profits for the combined AgustaWestland Group in 2013 were reported at £134.5m up from a figure of £79.5m a year earlier. Not bad and here’s to another 100 successful years at Yeovil in particular.
CHW (London – 27th July 2015)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS