WITH its rotors pounding and its engines roaring, the first of the newly-refurbished Puma helicopters took to the skies over Oxford Airport yesterday.
It is the first trial version of the 24-strong revamped Puma fleet to be delivered to the Ministry of Defence by Kidlington-based engineering firm Eurocopter.
The aircraft will eventually be based at RAF Benson and has been tested extensively at the Boscombe Down military test and evaluation centre in Wiltshire.
It is a landmark for Eurocopter bosses and 200 staff based at its Kidlington headquarters after the £350m Puma contract avoided being cut in the Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010.
That could have led to half the workforce being made redundant.
Eurocopter managing director Marcus Steinke said: “This is good news for the whole region – hundreds of people are dependent on the Puma.”
Fellow director Tim MacMahon added: “Each aircraft will take about a year to complete because there are so many major changes to it including more modern, powerful engines and a better carrying capacity with additional fuel tanks.”
Three more Pumas will be completed by Eurocopter this year and stationed at RAF Benson with the final aircraft being delivered in 2014, marking the completion of the five-year programme.
Squadron leader Liam Taylor, who is in charge of the Puma 2 team at RAF Benson, said: “This is a great step forward for us.
“It brings a 40-year-old design into the modern era and makes it the top aircraft in its class.”
The Puma has seen action all over the world but has not been used in Afghanistan to date.
The RAF would not be drawn on whether it would be used in the conflict in the future, but Eurocopter bosses say it is now equipped to land in harsh conditions with difficult terrain.
Two years ago, Eurocopter directors said the contract only had a 50/50 chance of going ahead after the Government identified it as a possible area to be cut under the Strategic Defence and Security Review.
The same report also threatened the future of RAF Benson but after lobbying at the highest level, the decision went in favour of Eurocopter.
Now the Puma will continue to fly until at least 2025 and possibly longer depending on demand and Eurocopter will continue to be heavily involved in the servicing and equipping of the aircraft.
- The Eurocopter Group was formed in 1992 although its origins can be traced to early aircraft pioneers such as Bleriot.
- It employs more than 20,000 people at sites across Europe and has revenues of £4.3bn.
- The Kidlington site employs 200 workers, many of whom have an ex-military background.
- As well as the Ministry of Defence, it makes helicopters used to transport personnel to oil rigs in the North Sea as well as private individuals.
- The Thames Valley and Chiltern Air Ambulance and the Chiltern Air Support Unit aircraft used by Thames Valley Police were built by Eurocopter.