LONDON — The chief executive of Ascent Flight Training was the guest of Airbus Helicopters at a recent industry dinner, fueling speculation that Airbus has won the yet unannounced contract to provide and support rotorcraft to train British military crews starting 2018.

Another industry executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Defense News that Paul Livingston, the boss of Ascent Flying Training, would not have allowed himself to be a guest of any bidder had the competition still been in play.

"His presence appears to be a clear signal that Airbus has won the contest and that an announcement is likely to be imminent," he said.

Ascent declined to comment but confirmed Livingston was at the May 18 dinner in London. Airbus also declined to comment.

Airbus Helicopters is one of two concerns that since 2013 have been competing for a £500 million ($725 million) deal to provide and support a fleet of helicopters for the next 17 years.

Owned by Lockheed Martin and Babcock, Ascent has a 25-year private finance initiative deal with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to train all British helicopter and fixed-wing crews in a program known as the military flying training system.

Ascent's website says it expects the rotary wing deal to be signed in early 2016 and begin training of students on the new platforms in 2018.

Airbus has been battling with a Cobham-Leonardo-Finmeccancia helicopters team since 2013 for the training deal.

Loss of the contract will be a further blow for Cobham, which recently saw its shares plunge following a profit warning and a move to tap shareholders for £500 million in a rights issue.

Helicopter training is currently conducted at a Royal Air Force base at Shawbury, England, by a Cobham-owned company using aging Squirrel and Griffin helicopters.

Together with a similar deal signed earlier this year for fixed-wing training aircraft, the apparent selection of Airbus is the biggest element of a multibillion-pound program that will see Ascent run Britain's crew-training effort until 2033.

Neither of the bidders has publicly declared what machines they have offered, although media speculation has previously indicated Airbus is offering its H135 and H145 light helicopters for the role.

If confirmed, the deal would likely be the largest single military helicopter sale by Airbus to the British.

The company's helicopter arm is principally known by the MoD here for its supply, update and maintenance of the Puma transport helicopter.

Earlier this year, Ascent signed a similar deal with a KBR-led consortium to procure, operate and maintain fixed-wing training aircraft.

Known as Affinity Flying Training Services, the consortium is supplying Beechcraft T-6C, Grob G120TP and Embraer Phenom aircraft to train crews.

Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.

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