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British Industrial History

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Westland Helicopters

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Note: This is a sub-section of Westland.

Post-WWII: the Westland company decided to get out of fixed-wing aircraft and concentrate solely on helicopters under a licensing agreement with Sikorsky. This upset W. E. W. Petter, the chief designer, who left to form a new aircraft division at the English Electric Co that would go on to be very successful.

Production started with building of the Sikorsky S-51, which became the Dragonfly, flying for the first time in 1948, and entering service with the Royal Navy and RAF in 1953. Westland developed an improved version the Widgeon which was not a great success. Success with the Dragonfly was repeated with the Sikorsky S-55 which became the Whirlwind, and a re-engined Sikorsky S-58 in both turboshaft and turbine engine powered designs as the Wessex.

The chairmanship of Eric Mensforth from 1953-1968 marked the start of the transition which was aided by the government when in 1959-1961 they forced the merger of the 20 or so aviation firms into three groups: British Aircraft Corporation and Hawker Siddeley Group took over fixed-wing designs, while the helicopter divisions of Bristol, Fairey Aviation Co and Saunders-Roe (with their hovercraft) were merged with Westland.

1959 Purchased Saunders-Roe from S. Pearson Industries[1], and the helicopter divisions of Bristol Aeroplane Co Ltd and Fairey Aviation Co, funded by issue of shares. John Brown's holding in Westland Aircraft Ltd was reduced but that company retained control. Westland also owned Normalair Ltd and Westland Engineers Ltd[2].

Westland inherited the Saro Skeeter helicopter, a development of the Skeeter (the P531) and the Fairey Rotodyne compound helicopter (gyrodyne) design. They continued to develop the latter, sidelining their own Westminster large transport design. They continued the Skeeter family with the Scout and Wasp.

1961 Helicopter designers and constructors. [3]

1961 Westland Helicopters was formed. Westland produced other aircraft under licence from Sikorsky (Sea King), and Bell (Sioux). They produced their own designs the Westland Scout and its naval variant the Westland Wasp from the P.531 which found favour with the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm respectively.

In the late 1960s the company started a collaboration with Aerospatiale to design three new helicopters, the Aérospatiale Puma, Aérospatiale Gazelle and Westland: Lynx, with the later being primarily a Westland design.

In 1970 Westland bought out its partners in the British Hovercraft Corporation

For many years Westland owned the main London heliport at Battersea.

1983 A civil W-30 helicopter crashed in the USA and orders for the type, which had been expected to plug the gap in military orders, shrank[4]

1984 Despite good support from the British establishment, the company gradually fell into unprofitability.

1985 Sikorsky approached with a bail-out deal that split the cabinet and led to the resignation of Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine in January 1986 over the fate of Britain's sole helicopter manufacturer. The split, which became known as the Westland affair was over whether to push the company into a European deal or accept the US company's offer.

1988 GKN bought into Westland, initially acquiring a stake owned by Hanson plc they soon acquired the shares owned by Fiat which gave them absolute control. In 1994 Westland became a wholly owned subsidiary of GKN. It was merged with Finmeccanica's Agusta helicopter division in 1999, and became AgustaWestland.

2004 Finmeccanica S.p.A. acquired GKN's share in the joint venture.

Currently named Leonardo Helicopters.

The Westland site at Yeovil is known in the local area as 'Wastelands' and the company as 'Wasteland Helicopters'. Past and present employees also often refer to the company as such.

The former Westland site at the now-disused airfield in Weston-super-Mare houses the Helicopter Museum featuring a number of examples of Westland aircraft. Pride of place is given to an immaculate Westland Wessex HCC Mk.4, formerly of the Queen's Flight, and to a Westland Lynx which holds the world helicopter speed record (400.87 kph, 249.10 mph).

See Westland Aircraft for a list of Westland Helicopters.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. The Times, 14 August 1959
  2. The Times, 12 August 1960
  3. 1961 Dun and Bradstreet KBE
  4. The Times, Dec 23, 1985