© Ian Harding | ZR287 / 6203 | Agusta Westland AW-101 Merlin Mk614 | Agusta Westland

As tension surrounding the invasion of Ukraine by Russia builds, it is no surprise that Poland continues to sign various contracts with European and US companies to strengthen the country’s air defence capability. This process commenced in January 2020 when Poland and the US State department signed a Letter of Offer and Acceptance valued at $4.6 billion for the acquisition of 32 Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II 5th generation fighters. Latterly, attention has turned to the re-equipment of Poland’s rotary force which includes the acquisition of 32 Leonardo Helicopters AW149 battlefield utility helicopters in July 2022 (valued at 8.25 billion PLN/$1.83 billion), and more recently 96 Boeing AH-64E Apache attack helicopters in August 2023 (valued at $12 billion). Preceding these acquisitions was the acquisition of four Leonardo Helicopters AW101 in April 2019 which Ian Harding considers.

With the Polish Navy’s ageing fleet of Mil Mi-14 Haze close to retirement, the Polish Ministry of Defence announced in April 2019 that it had signed a contract with Leonardo Helicopters to acquire four AW101 Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW)/Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) helicopters to replace this ageing fleet and thereby enhance the Marynarka Vojenna (Polish Navy) maritime capabilities. Currently the Polish Navy operates the W-3 WARM Anaconda helicopter for Search and Rescue (SAR) purposes alongside the Mi-14. However this helicopter has certain limitations in this role due to its size compared to the multi-role capabilities of the AW101. In service, the AW101 will be operated by the 44th Naval Aviation Base at Darłowo in north-western Poland.

Built by Leonardo Helicopters’ factory in Yeovil, Somerset (home to the AW101 Merlin helicopter), this original contract for four aircraft was signed in Świdnik in Poland and was valued at approximately 380 million Euro (1.65 billion PLN). Most importantly, with established helicopter links already existing with PZL-Świdnik (100% owned by Leonardo Helicopters), the contract also included the agreement to establish in-country maintenance capabilities for the AW101. 

The reasons for Poland choosing the AW101 for the combined ASW/CSAR role are easy to understand when one considers its multi-role capabilities and the nations which have chosen to operate it. In service since 1999, the AW101 has accumulated over 400,000 operational hours operating in some of the most hazardous and extreme conditions over land and sea. Well established as an ASW and CSAR platform with the Royal Navy and Italian Navy/Italian Air Force respectively, the AW101s wide-ranging capabilities have importantly been recognised by other NATO countries which include Canada, Norway and Portugal who place high demands on the platform. With three of the world’s most extensive coastlines and SAR areas in the world, it is no surprise that the AW101 has been chosen by these three countries. In the case of Canada (known as the CH-149 Cormorant) and Norway (SAR Queen), the AW101 is also regularly tested over water in Arctic conditions. This proven experience will have undoubtedly been important in the decision by Poland to select the AW101 given their requirement for the aircraft to operate over the Baltic Sea which has a reputation for being treacherous. 

With its three engines, Maximum Take Off Weight (MTOW) of 15.6 tonnes, large cabin area which can accommodate 30 passengers (including specialised medical equipment plus the team to facilitate this care), the AW101 is perfectly suited to operations at sea. Allied to the largest cabin space in its class which can be arranged in a variety of configurations to meet the specific demands placed on it, the AW101 is additionally equipped with a low-workload, NVG-compatible glass cockpit, fully integrated communications, navigation, avionics and flight and mission management systems plus a CSAR module enabling it to perform this important mission. In truth, there is no other medium lift helicopter with the AW101s long term and proven safety record of operating extensive long distance missions in the harshest of weather conditions.

Aircraft Deliveries

Delivery of the four AW101 MK614 aircraft was completed by the end of 2023 as expected (ZR285/6201 took place on December 28, 2023). Delivery of the first aircraft to PZL-Świdnik for further testing took place on August 9, 2023. The four aircraft and their first flight dates are as follows:

ZR285/6201 POLAND01 First flight 19/7/2021

ZR286/6202 POLAND02 First flight 06/11/2021 

ZR287/6203 POLAND03 First flight 23/06/2022 

ZR288/6204 POLAND04 First flight 24/11/2022

With strong corporate links already established in Poland with PZL-Świdnik, the recent establishment of Leonardo Poland has strengthened these ties further. Confirmation of this came in May 2023 from Air Force officials, and then latterly on August 10,2023 when Reuters reported that Poland was “Seeking to negotiate for the purchase of 22 AW101 helicopters produced by PZL-Świdnik”. This was later confirmed by the Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszcak who wrote on platform X (formerly Twitter) that “Today we sent an invitation to negotiations for the delivery of 22 multi-role AW101 helicopters, which will soon replace post-Soviet models”. Analysing these comments would suggest that should these negotiations be fruitful, these AW101s will likely replace Poland’s ageing Mil Mi-8/17 helicopters currently in service with the Polish Army. Clearly there is a lot of ground to be covered and understandably Leonardo Helicopters have provided no comments on the matter. That said, with Poland having confirmed the purchase of 32 AW149 battlefield utility helicopters which will be built by PZL-Świdnik, and the war in Ukraine showing no signs of being resolved, it is clear that Poland will continue to modernise and seek to secure its military defence devoting increasing expenditure to the cause.   

You can find out more about the first flight back in 2021 from Leonardo Helicopters here: https://www.leonardo.com/en/press-release-detail/-/detail/20-07-2021-leonardos-aw101-for-the-polish-navy-flies-for-the-first-time

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