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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 July 2006, 23:05 GMT 00:05 UK
Aero industry readies for Farnborough
By Will Smale
Business reporter, BBC News, Somerset

Agusta Westland helicopter interior
Agusta hopes to fly high at Farnborough
Flying low over the ocean a mile off the coast of Alaska, my first helicopter lesson was proving to be a nerve-wracking experience.

Concentrating like never before, I gripped the controls of the big Agusta Westland EH101 and gingerly turned her to the right.

Thankfully I was in very safe hands, and had soon passed the helicopter back to instructor pilot Len Mathews, who after 27 years flying with the Royal Navy was calmness personified.

I completely messed up the subsequent landing, though. But, fortunately, it was just a flight simulator.

Presidential choppers

Instead of Alaska I was actually in a giant aircraft hangar in Somerset, at the UK headquarters of Agusta Westland, one of the world's top-two helicopter manufacturers.

Real deals are struck
Howard Chesterton, executive director of the South West of England Aerospace Forum

As the company prepares for next week's Farnborough International Airshow, I am being shown around its 350-acre site in Yeovil.

Set to have the largest display of helicopters on show at Farnborough, the event will allow Agusta Westland to highlight its most recent achievements.

Already the largest supplier of helicopters to the UK Ministry of Defence, last month it was announced that it had won a 1bn contract to supply 70 of its latest generation Future Lynx helicopters to the British Army and Royal Navy.

And in December it is due to test fly the world's first full "fly-by-wire" helicopter, which does away with the usual heavy hydraulic systems.

In addition, it is a key partner in a joint project to build a new presidential helicopter fleet for the White House.

Shop window

Agusta Westland, which is part of Italian defence group Finmeccanica and the UK's sole helicopter manufacturer, employs 3,500 people in Yeovil and is a major player in the aerospace sector in the South West of England.

Also there are Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems in Bristol, as well as no less than 800 other aerospace companies of all shapes and sizes, making the South West's aerospace industry the biggest in the UK.

Agusta Westland helicopter
Agusta sees the show as an opportunity to show off its wares

As Farnborough is their local show, it is their most important showcase of the year, enabling them to meet potential buyers from around the world.

"Farnborough is very much an ideal shop window," says Agusta Westland spokesman Geoff Russell.

"One of the top four air shows in the world, it is a chance to show potential customers our range of products.

"For larger firms like ourselves we don't normally sign new contracts during the actual show, but it can happen on the civil side - there was once one wealthy private individual who turned up, said he liked a particular helicopter, and wrote a cheque for a deposit there and then."

Doing deals

Air shows like Farnborough are mainly about meeting potential future customers, and a good opportunity to make comparisons with rivals, Mr Russell says.

Arms and aircraft on display at the show

"Farnborough certainly is a substantial investment for firms like ourselves, but we wouldn't be spending the money if we didn't think it was worthwhile."

For smaller aerospace firms, Farnborough is an even more important opportunity to highlight their work and win new contracts from the bigger firms.

"Real deals are struck," says Howard Chesterton, executive director of the South West of England Aerospace Forum.

"At the last Farnborough show, our smaller members agreed deals of nearly 2m, and we'll be there in force again this year."

Back at Agusta Westland in Yeovil, the engineers are busy continuing with the day job.

With helicopters of all shapes and sizes - and varying levels of completion - lined up in giant hangars, it would be enough to make a teenage aerospace enthusiast faint.

And that's before they let you have a go on the flight simulator.

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