Westland bids for presidential deal

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The Independent Online

For more than 50 years an American company has made the green and white liveried helicopters that ferry around US presidents on short trips at home or abroad.

For more than 50 years an American company has made the green and white liveried helicopters that ferry around US presidents on short trips at home or abroad.

But now a British company is bidding for the contract to update 11 of the famous Marine One fleet, upsetting the patriotic sensibilities of US manufacturers who believe the British may get the contract, in part because of its country's support of the war in Iraq. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has written a "personal" letter to President George Bush asking him to support the bid.

Since the days of President Dwight Eisenhower the fleet of helicopters that land on the south lawn of the White House and take presidents either to Camp David or Andrews Air Force base have been made by US manufacturer Sikorsky.

Sikorsky's main challenger is the joint British-Italian company, AgustaWestland, which is offering a three-engine helicopter that it plans to build in the US. Sikorsky is pitching a newly certified twin-engine S-92 whirlybird. Bell Helicopter and Boeing are also contenders.

Sources involved in awarding the contract yesterday told The Wall Street Journal that until recently it would have been impossible for a foreign-designed helicopter to be considered for the Marine One fleet. But the source said that because of Britain's continued support of the US over Iraq such concerns had been dropped.

Mr Blair wrote to Mr Bush in January to support AgustaWestland's bid, saying: "I hope you will look favourably on this proven 'off the shelf' product." Downing Street last night refused to release the full text of what it said was "personal correspondence" designed to outline that the AgustaWestland helicopter was a proven product that was used by the British, Italian and Canadian military.

AgustaWestland's bid has angered those who feel the contract should go to an American company. Last week Sikorsky's parent company, United Technologies, lost a $3bn (£1.9bn) contract to supply engines to the Airbus military cargo plane. Though United's bid was some 20 per cent lower than that of the winning European consortium, the Europeans used political ties to offer sweeteners to the deal.

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