LONDON — The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) has announced a near £500 million deal that will see future military rotorcraft training undertaken on a fleet of around 30 Airbus helicopters.

According to Friday's announcement, the UK arm of Airbus Helicopters will build and support its H135 and H145 platforms as part of the military flying training system (MFTS) program being managed for the MoD by Ascent Flying Training.

Airbus Helicopters UK defense business boss Ian Morris said that due to the tight timelines involved, the company had built the helicopters at its own risk for months in anticipation of securing a deal that was only signed in the last few days.

The schedule involves the rotary-wing aircraft being fully operational by April 2018, Ian Morris said.

"It was always an extremely tight time frame. We have to move from contract signature a few days ago to full service providing 28,000 flying hours a year by April 1, 2018. Under the normal way of doing things that's nearly incomprehensible, so we made a strategic decision back in the late summer of 2015 as we completed our offer to start building aircraft at risk," he said.

Eight aircraft are in various stages of the manufacturing process at the Airbus assembly site at Donauwörth, Germany.

Morris said up to four three, possibly four, machines were likely to have been delivered to the UK by the end of the year for minor customization ahead of delivery. 

The executive said Airbus was confident they wouldn't end up with whitetails as the UK customer's requirement is very close to the normal core aircraft coming off the production line.

Airbus declined to give the number of helicopters included in the deal but graphics provided by the MoD show the new fleet will comprise 29 H135's and three H-145's.

"Ascent's [requirement] wanted the bidders to deliver 28,000 flying hours per year with an average of 110/120 sorties a day, and that's the basis we created the fleet on," he said.

The H145 has a bigger cabin but identical avionics to the H135. The larger helicopter will primarily be used for maritime and mountain crew training.

The total value of the rotary-wing training contract is around £1.1 billion — a figure which includes Ascent's owners supplying ground-based training equipment, infrastructure and integrated support.

Jointly owned by Babcock International and Lockheed Martin, Ascent has a 25-year, private finance initiative deal with the MoD to train British military rotary- and fixed-wing crews through to 2033.

The MoD said in a statement that the deal brings spending on the MFTS program to £2.8 billion with fast-jet, rotary-, fixed- and rear-crew training programs now under contract.

The total value of the rotary-wing training contract is around £1.1 billion — a figure which includes Ascent's owners supplying ground-based training equipment, infrastructure and integrated support.

Photo Credit: UK Ministry of Defence

"This is the final element in refashioning the UK MFTS into a state-of-the-art structure to develop suitably qualified aircrew to secure the future of air elements of our Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force. Our armed forces will benefit from consistent, world-class training across the board, " Minister of State for Defence Procurement Philip Dunne said.

The program has previously faced criticism by the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee and others for long delays in implementation, although the problems now appear to have been resolved.

The final two major core programs to reequip Britain's flying training effort have been signed in a matter of months.

Ascent signed a deal worth around £500 million in February with the KBR/Elbit owned Affinity Flying Training Services for the procurement and support of three different types of fixed-wing training aircraft.

Total costs of the fixed-wing deal, including the Affinity element, is put at around £1.1 billion by the MoD.

Speculation Airbus had secured the helicopter deal surfaced May 19 after Defense News reported that Paul Livingstone, the boss of Ascent, had been a guest of Airbus at a major industry dinner in London the previous evening.

The 17-year contract between Ascent and  Airbus is scheduled to see students start training on the helicopters in 2018.

The fleet of helicopters are expected to deliver the 28,000 hours a year required for the British training needs.

Award of the contract to Airbus will be a further blow to rival Cobham, which had been challenging for the deal offering Leonardo-Finmeccancia helicopters.

Cobham shares plunged recently following a profit warning and a move to tap shareholders for a £500 million rights issue.

Peter Nottage, Cobham Aviation Services president, said the company was "very disappointed not to have been selected to provide the ongoing services. Cobham expect[s] the vast majority of staff to transfer to the new service providers and other projects."

The company currently provides military helicopter training services for the British primarily at a Royal Air Force base at Shawbury, England, using 38 Squirrel and 14 Griffin machines.

Training is also conducted at the Army Air Corps base at Middle Wallop, England, and RAF Valley in North Wales.

Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.

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