is turning its attention to setting up training and support bases in China after suspending talks for private assembly of its helicopters in the country.
The company is not ruling out the possibility of eventually coming to an agreement with Chongqing Helicopter over assembly of AgustaWestland helicopters. But, in the meantime, an opportunity exists to train more of the pilots and other specialists who will be needed if manufacturers are to fully exploit the market.
Manufacturers and operators say the shortage of trained people will restrict growth even as the Chinese air force loosens its grip on low-altitude airspace, opening up a great potential market for rotorcraft.
Since China has few civil helicopter pilot schools, the industry sends students abroad, notably to the U.S. That restricts the supply further, because the students must have adequate English skills.
“AgustaWestland thinks that having a training center in China with Chinese instructors is a must. We are starting to think about that, but we have some ideas,” says Fulvio Maurogiovanni, the company’s senior vice president for China. “We want to build a network of service centers and a training center.”
Not just pilots and ground technicians are needed; rescue helicopters must have skilled operators for their equipment, such as winches.
More AgustaWestland service centers will have to be scattered around the country, too. The company has one at Jingdezhen, where it assembles AW109s in partnership with the Changhe unit of Avic group rotary wing specialist Avicopter. It also has one in Macau, not part of mainland China. That will not be enough for the expected future fleet of AgustaWestland helicopters . There are 47 of them now operating in mainland China and Hong Kong.
Chongqing Helicopter and AgustaWestland last year proposed joint assembly of an unnamed helicopter at the 130-hectare (320 acre) site that the Chinese company had acquired for its planned manufacturing base.
But AgustaWestland was unable to meet the ambitions of the Chongqing company, says Maurogiovanni. Chongqing Helicopter wanted to assemble an AgustaWestland type for international sales as well as for China, and it wanted to assemble or build helicopters for other manufacturers, too.
Apart from those sticking points, a deal was quite close when the two parties stopped talking, he says, adding that he is impressed by the determination of the Chinese company to get into the helicopter business.
“We are not closing the door, because we think Chongqing is a market that allows good penetration [of the national market], and Chongqing is itself growing,” says Maurogiovanni. “But we cannot compromise on those two points.”
Chongqing Helicopter set up in January 2011 with registered assets of CNY3.3 billion (500 million), 130 hectares (320 acres) of development land and backing from the government of Chongqing (pronounced Chong-ching), nominally a city but actually a small province with a big urban area and 30 million people. AgustaWestland has envisaged an operation there that would at first assemble major modules and would gradually move to more complex manufacturing processes.
The proposal could turn out the largest aircraft to be privately assembled in China without the involvement of state aeronautics group Avic. “I would just love to do something in China without Avic,” says a Western industry executive who has long experience in working with the group and thinks a private partner would be much more efficient, providing it could get skilled staff. Avic and state commercial aircraft builder Comac employ the majority of Chinese people working in aircraft manufacturing.
But the opportunity to try aircraft manufacturing or assembly in China without Avic may not be available at Chongqing. Two industry executives say that Avic may become involved in Chongqing Helicopter. According to one, Chongqing Helicopter has always wanted some association with the state group, presumably to supply skilled workers and managers.