Win the adventure of a lifetime!

UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Westland - Cold War Helicopters

The last fixed-wing design to be produced by Westland was the powerful Wyvern shipborne strike fighter, powered by a large turboprop driving contra-rotating propellers it entered service with the Royal Navy in 1953 and was used operationally during the Suez crisis in 1956.

Over 6000 fixed wing aircraft were built at Yeovil between 1915 and 1955. With the end of the war meant that the large aircraft industry would have to adapt to peacetime needs. The board of Westland Aircraft decided that the future may lie with a totally different form of flying machine, the helicopter.

The first practical helicopters had appeared towards the end of the war in Germany and USA, one of the most successful American designers being Sikorsky. In 1946 Westland negotiated a long term agreement to build Sikorsky designs under licence, but they also made the bold policy decision to specialise in helicopter designs for the future.

After World War II, Westland had signed a license to build the Sikorsky S-51 helicopter. Westland significantly modified the design and designated it the WS-51 Dragonfly. Work started with the Sikorsky S-51, which was subjected to some re-design to become the Dragonfly, flying for the first time in October 1948, in 1950 aircraft were being delivered to the Royal Navy for use aboard aircraft carriers, and in service with the RAF by 1953. The Dragonfly HR.Mk1 equipped the Royal Navy's first helicopter squadron. Westland also produced the Dragonfly for civilian customers and the militaries of Japan, Iraq, France, Yugoslavia and Ceylon. The WS-51 Dragonfly was the first British-built helicopter to gain a certificate of airworthiness.

Success with the Dragonfly was repeated with the S-55 to become the Whirlwind. Westland began licensed manufacture of the Sikorsky S-55, designated the WS-55 Whirlwind, in November 1950. The aircraft served in the RAF and the Royal Navy, and also in the Queen's Flight and in civil service. Westland also soon licensed the Sikorsky S-58 re-engined with a gas turbine , which it produced as the popular Wessex. It was initially used as an anti-submarine helicopter, but soon employed by the Royal Marine Commandos and the RAF. The introduction of helicopters into the Royal Navy was to transform Naval Aviation. The use of helicopters equipped with dipping sonar superseded fixed wing aircraft in the anti-submarine role while helicopters brought a whole new dimension to search and rescue.

It must not be assumed that Westland simply built off the shelf designs under licence. In all cases the Westland versions were subject to re-design and incorporated many improvements. Later Whirlwinds were re-engined with gas-turbines and the Wessex included a very advanced autopilot, setting the highest standards in the anti-submarine role.

In 1960 the British aircraft industry underwent a major re-organisation. There were at the time over twenty aircraft manufacturers, all competing for a few orders. The government of the time made it clear that it could no longer support this situation. The result was a period of re-organisation where many of the companies combined to form only two major aircraft manufacturing groups (The British Aircraft Corporation and the Hawker Siddeley Group), neither of which had retained any interest in rotorcraft.

By the late 1950s Westland was already the primary British helicopter manufacturer. Because of its success in the helicopter business, Westland were well placed to take the lead for rotary winged aircraft. In 1959 Westland Aircraft acquired Saunders-Roe and in March 1960 the Helicopter Division of Bristol Aircraft and Fairey Aviation, thus merging all helicopter production in the U.K. into one company. In 1966 the helicopter activities of Westland Aircraft were consolidated in the Westland Helicopters Ltd, Britain's sole helicopter company with full order books for Wessex, Scout and Wasp.

By the mid-1960s, Westland also began producing the Sikorsky S-61 Sea King. The company also began cooperative production of its own helicopter design, the WG.3, with the French aerospace company Aérospatiale.

It is no exaggeration to state that the first real successful collaborative agreement in the military helicopter field was the British/French agreement of 1967 which was endorsed by both governments in April 1968. This agreement led to the development of the SA-3Ll1/L12 GAZELLE, the WG.13 LYNX, and the SA—330 PUMA. An important point in these agreements was the assignment of prime responsibility to one of the companies; thus Westland was responsible for the design of the LYNX and Aerospatiale for GAZELLE and PUMA. Westland had begun work on the Lynx tactical utility helicopter in 1963. The Lynx began flying by 1970 and proved highly successful in British military service. It saw action in the Falklands War in 1981 and later in the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

The partnership with Sikorsky continued with the adoption of the SH-3D to produce the Sea King. At the same time the British forces requirement for a range of new helicopters was met by collaboration with the French company, Aerospatiale to produce three new designs, Puma, Gazelle and Lynx.

Westland were to take design leadership for the Lynx, while Aerospatiale were to be responsible for Puma and Gazelle. Both companies were to take part in the development and manufacture of all the aircraft. The Anglo-French Helicopter Package Deal represented a major step in the development of Westland within the European aircraft industry.

There followed a period of unprecedented prosperity for Westland, the Lynx was a great success, setting a new high standard for small ship operations with Westland becoming the world leader in this field. A substantial number of Pumas and Gazelles were on order for the British services, while Sea King was doing well in the export market.

As the Lynx established itself with overseas orders, a decision was made to launch a larger aircraft, based on Lynx dynamic components as a private venture on the civil market. This was to be the 12000lb/14 passenger Westland 30. The W30 met with some initial success in the UK and USA, but the expected orders never materialised in time to fill the production gap which was predicted once the UK military orders had been delivered.

By the early 1980s the Westland Group employed 12,500 people of whom 7,500 were working for Westland Helicopters. ln production were LYNX in the ARMY LYNX and SEA LYNX version, WH.30 (commercial) with increasing production rate. This is a helicopter in the six—ton class and able to carry 22 troops. SEA KING and COMMANDO production rate was 15 per year. Westland was also delivering components and parts for the PUMA/SUPER PUMAand GAZELLE.

The mid 1980s proved to be a difficult time for Westland. On the one hand there was a need to find a suitable partner to invest capital, sufficient to sustain the company over the period when a new product could be brought on line. At the same time the company was making considerable investment in composite blade technology and design of a replacement for the Sea King. Westland favoured a proposal for a major link with Sikorsky but the then Secretary of State for Defence, Micheal Hesseltine, preferred a European option. The Westland dilemma made national news at the time, but the link with Sikorsky went ahead and Westland survived.

In February 1986 Westland plc (public limited company), the major helicopter design and manufacturing organization in the United Kingdom, approved the passing of control of approximately 30 percent of its stock to a bidding team of United Technologies' Sikorsky Aircraft Division (US) and Italy's Fiat. Repercussions to even the rumor of this sale were heated and serious. The British Secretary of the State for Defence resigned in protest of the sale. Prime Minister Thatcher was personally involved in the the ruckus, and was forced to defend her support of the sale before a very hostile Parliament. The chairman of France's Aerospatiale stated that this company might withdraw some of its Super Puma subcontract with Westland.

The future role of a UK helicopter representative in future European NATO helicopter ventures was at the heart of the controversy. At the same time, Westland likely would receive a much increased role with Sikorsky in Sikorsky's S-70 BlackHawk international production and marketing efforts. Westland and Sikorsky had been associated with each other since at least 1947 when Westland obtained a license from Sikorsky to build the S-51 which it called the Dragon?y. Had Westland not opted for the Sikorsky-Fiat link, it might well have accepted the "European offer" from a consortium consisting of British Aerospace and the General Electric Company (GEC) of Britain, Aerospatiale of France, Augusta of Italy, and Messerschmitt-Boelkow-Blohm (MBB)of Germany. In any case, Prime Minister Thatcher wrote that "as long as Westland continues to carry on business in the U.K., the govemment will of course continue to regard it as aBritish, and therefore, a European company, and will support it in pursuing British interests in Europe."

Join the mailing list

Page last modified: 09-05-2013 17:37:40 ZULU