In 1915 the Westland Aircraft Works was founded as a division of Petters
Limited in response to government orders for the construction under licence
of initially 12 Short Type 184 seaplanes, followed by 20 Short Type 166
aircraft. Orders for other aircraft followed during the First World War,
including the Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter, the de Havilland designed Airco DH.4,
Airco DH.9 and Airco DH.9A and the Vickers Vimy. As a result of the
experience gained in manufacturing aircraft under licence, Westland began to
design and build its own aircraft, starting with the Westland N-1B in 1917,
which was followed in 1918 by the Wagtail and the Weasel.
Following the end of war, Westland produced the Limousine and Woodpigeon
light aircraft for the civilian market, but most successful was the Wapiti
close support aircraft. In 1935 Petters split its aircraft manufacturing
from its aircraft engine concerns to form Westland Aircraft Limited, based
in Yeovil, Somerset.
The Whirlwind was the UK's first cannon-armed fighter and faster than many
other British aircraft at the time but was troubled by the inability of
Rolls-Royce to produce the engines. During World War II the company produced
a number of undistinguished military aircraft including the Lysander, and
The Welkin was a twin-engine high altitude design to intercept attempts by
high-flying German bombers to attack Britain. When the threat never appeared
production was limited.
For much of the war their factories were used to build Supermarine
Spitfires, after the Supermarine factory in Southampton was bombed out of
action during the Battle of Britain, indeed Westlands built more Spitfires
than any other manufacturer. Westland would then go on to be the major
designers of the Supermarine Seafire, a navalised conversion of the
Post-war the company decided to get out of fixed-wing aircraft and
concentrate solely on helicopters under a licensing agreement with Sikorsky.
This upset W.E.W. Petter, the chief designer, who left to form a new
aircraft division at English Electric that would go on to be very
Production started with the Sikorsky S-51, which became the Dragonfly,
flying for the first time in 1948, and entering service with the Royal Navy
and RAF in 1953. Westland developed an improved version the Widgeon which
was not a great success. Success with the Dragonfly was repeated with the
Sikorsky S-55 which became the Whirlwind, and a re-engined Sikorsky S-58 in
both turboshaft and turbine engine powered designs as the Wessex.
The chairmanship of Eric Mensforth from 1953–1968 marked the start of the
transition, which was aided by the government when in 1959–1961 they forced
the merger of the 20 or so aviation firms into three groups, British
Aircraft Corporation and Hawker Siddeley Group took over fixed-wing designs,
while the helicopter divisions of Bristol, Fairey and Saunders-Roe (with
their hovercraft) were merged with Westland to form Westland Helicopters in
Westland inherited the Saro Skeeter helicopter, a development of the Skeeter
(the P531) and the Fairey Rotodyne compound helicopter (gyrodyne) design.
They continued to develop the latter sidelining their own Westland
Westminster large transport design.
The company continued to produce other aircraft under licence from Sikorsky
(Sea King) and Bell (Sioux). They also produced their own designs the
Westland Scout and its naval variant the Westland Wasp from the P.531 which
found favour with the Army Air Corps and Fleet Air Arm respectively.
In the late 1960s the company started a collaboration with Aerospatiale to
design three new helicopters, the Aérospatiale Puma, Aérospatiale Gazelle
and Westland Lynx, with the later being primarily a Westland design.
In 1970 Westland bought out its partners in the British Hovercraft
For many years Westland owned the main London heliport at Battersea.
Despite good support from the British establishment, the company gradually
fell into unprofitability. Sikorsky approached with a bail-out deal in 1985
that split the cabinet and led to the resignation of Defence Secretary
Michael Heseltine in January 1986 over the fate of Britain's sole helicopter
manufacturer. The split, which became known as the Westland affair was over
whether to push the company into a European deal or accept the US company's
offer. Eventually, the link with Sikorsky was accepted.
Recently examples of the Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopter have also
been built by Westland as the WAH-64, entering full operational service in
2005. Some of the company's Whirlwind and Wessex helicopters served the
Queen's Flight (later merged into No. 32 Squadron).
GKN plc bought into Westland in 1988, initially acquiring a stake owned by
Hanson plc they soon acquired the shares owned by Fiat which gave them
absolute control. In 1994 Westland became a wholly owned subsidiary of GKN.
It was merged with Finmeccanica's Agusta helicopter division in 1999. In
2004, Finmeccanica S.p.A. acquired GKN's share in the joint venture.
The former Westland site at the now-disused airfield in Weston-super-Mare
houses The Helicopter Museum featuring a number of examples of Westland
aircraft. Pride of place is given to an immaculate Westland Wessex HCC Mk.4,
formerly of the Queen's Flight.