Whatever happened to the Westland WS-70 Blackhawk?

A long time ago Britain was marketing its own variant of the H-60 Blackhawk helicopter. Then, the project quietly disappeared. We asked Ron Smith, former Head of Future Projects at Westland Helicopters, to solve the mystery of the the WS-70.

The Westland affair arose from cashflow problems at Westland. The Thatcher government did not regard Westland a sufficiently strategic business to warrant the investment of public money to rescue it. This obviously drove the need for external investment. Was this to come from Europe (as supported by Michael Heseltine as Secretary of State for Defence), or from Sikorsky?

The proposition that Westland should produce the Blackhawk helped to make the Sikorsky investment seem more logical – particularly if Westland could sell in a range of markets that Sikorsky could not, or would not, seek to enter, (Westland had successfully tailored the Sea King to individual customer requirements and extensively developed the aircraft over time).

At the time, Blackhawk was a candidate for an RAF medium support helicopter requirement against AST404. It seems likely that the proposed deal with Sikorsky would have protected any Westland work, should Blackhawk be selected for AST404, which was seen to be the Operator’s preferred option at that time.

There was a perception that Sikorsky would primarily want to offer standard production aircraft on an FMS basis for any overseas sales. Westland-built aircraft would struggle to compete in price with FMS aircraft straight off the US production line because there would have been significant UK non-recurring costs, including learning and process approvals, to be amortised, had the programme gone ahead at any scale.

The success of the Westland Sea King over many years had made Sikorsky very chary about offering the same development rights to Westland on Blackhawk. Any restrictions in this area would reduce Westland’s scope for world-wide export sales. The sales and development rights offered to Westland on Blackhawk are reputed to have been more limited than had been agreed in respect of the Sea King.

It was announced in July 1988 (reported in 1990 Janes All the World’s Aircraft) that Saudi Arabia had signed a provisional agreement with the UK government for the purchase (among other equipment) of 88 Blackhawk helicopters to be supplied by Westland. In the event, this part of the proposed deal failed to come to fruition. Following the first Gulf War in 1991, the changes both in the political and military situations that resulted, meant that the contract for the WS-70 was not proceeded with.

Two aircraft were flown in the UK: ZG468 / G-17-70 was assembled by Westland from a kit manufactured by Sikorsky; and G-RRTM / N3124B, which was converted to be powered by the Rolls-Royce Turbomeca RTM322 engines. The fitting of RTM322 engines would probably have been beneficial in a hot, or hot and high, environment, but not otherwise (due to gearbox limits). (Certification of this change would also have increased cost).

The Westland demonstrator ended up in Bahrain as RBAF961. G-RRTM returned to the United States and was subsequently converted to S70C Firehawk N70C.

As part of the fall-out from the ‘Westland Affair’, a statement was made in the House of Commons on 9 April 1987 that 25 Utility EH101 would be purchased for the RAF. This was ultimately held to be a Governmental commitment (and therefore not subject to a procurement competition). The resultant Merlin purchase consumed all the funds that might otherwise have been used to buy a modernised medium support helicopter fleet. The same statement announced the decision of the UK to withdraw from the NH90 programme (and by implication also eliminated the Blackhawk as too small to meet UK needs).

Consequently, there was no money available for AST404, or Blackhawk, or NH90. In the longer term, the RAF Merlins were transferred to the Navy to support the Commando Force. Additional funds were subsequently found (under intense political pressure) to expand the Chinook force and to modernise the Puma fleet.

The NH90 programme (now reduced to France, Germany, Italy & Netherlands) has progressed to full production and has been notably successful in attracting sales outside the partner nations. Over time, NH90 (although very slow to come to fruition) has penetrated a number of the markets which Westland might otherwise have targeted with the WS-70.

Extract from statement made in the Commons 9 April 1987 (from Hansard):

HC (09/04/1987) Volume 114, columns 471, 472

Secretary of State for Defence George Younger statement on helicopter orders

Until 1985, it was envisaged that both RAF Puma and Wessex support helicopters would be replaced one-for-one by a helicopter of similar size.

That approach, however, came increasingly into question as a result of trials conducted by 6 Airmobile Brigade that suggested a requirement for an increased number of larger helicopters. A comprehensive review of the requirement for support helicopters in all roles well into the next century was therefore set in hand.

That work showed the need for additional large helicopters in the central region, capable of lifting a platoon—that is, about 30 men and their equipment—or a substantial logistic load. Those large helicopters, together with some Lynx battlefield helicopters, would enable the Army to provide an airmobile capability and thereby enhance our defence contribution in Germany.

The choice for the large helicopter lies between additional Chinooks, which are already in service in Germany, and the introduction of a utility version of the Anglo-Italian EH101 helicopter, which is due to enter service in the naval version in the early 1990s. The Government have decided that the right choice is to introduce the utility EH101 to meet that requirement. The choice will build on the investment that we have already made in the naval version and reflects our policy on European helicopter collaboration.

We have at the same time reviewed the case for continued British participation in the NH90 collaborative helicopter project beyond the study phase that was recently completed. NH90 is a smaller helicopter than EH101 and will be available later. With the decision that we have now reached on the future composition of our support helicopter force, we no longer have an early requirement for a helicopter in the NH90 class, nor is there the money to fund both participation in the NH90 definition and development programme — which is due to begin soon — and an early purchase of other helicopters. We are therefore informing our partners that we do not intend to proceed to the next stage of the NH90 project.

In reaching a decision on the choice between alternative support helicopters, and particularly on the timing of orders, I have had much in mind the workload at Westland Helicopters, until work builds up on the naval version of the EH101. Subject to satisfactory resolution of the contractual and other issues with the companies concerned and our Italian partners, we intend to place an order for an initial batch of 25 utility EH101s for delivery in the early 1990s.

I also intend—subject to satisfactory contractual negotiations—to order a further 16 Lynx helicopters for the support of airmobile operations. The cost of the orders—which have a total value well in excess of £300 million — will be contained within the overall public expenditure planning totals. They are in addition to an order already announced for a further seven Sea King helicopters for the Royal Navy, which I hope to place soon, following the completion of contractual negotiations.

3 comments

  1. Grant

    A real case of what could of been.
    Interesting that we still haven’t replaced the Puma’s and the government seems keen to wait on the US FVL programme. Would love to here Ron’s thoughts on that especially in light of what he said in his excellent piece on the V22 (a triumph of money over common sense)

  2. Ron Smith

    Personally, I never expected WS70 to succeed, partly because there was an active European programme already underway on NH90, and partly because Westland could not commercially compete with FMS aircraft off the US production line. The decision to replace the WAH-64D with bespoke RTN-322 engines with FMS AH-64Es straight from Boeing shows that this factor is still relevant today.
    As far as FVL is concerned. I think that FARA is likely to come to fruition. The heavier lift aircraft will take a long term to emerge. I can see big benefits in common mission system architectures to enable networked operations. The development of new configurations from technology demonstration to in-service with Full Operational Capability is fraught with difficulty, particularly where airframe novelty is accompanied by the development and certification of new powerplants.
    It’s really a question of wait and see, or, as vertical lift is involved, weight and see!

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