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Firms propose service-based helicopter training for U.S. military

By Andrea Shalal

COLORADO SPRINGS, Col., April 13 (Reuters) - AgustaWestland, the helicopter unit of Italy's Finmeccanica SpA, Bristow Group, Doss Aviation and Rockwell Collins Inc on Monday proposed a new service-based system for training U.S. military pilots using AgustaWestland's AW119 single-engine helicopter.

The four companies said they would offer the U.S. government and other customers access to new training helicopters, simulators and ground instruction, as well as management and maintenance of the entire fleet of aircraft, for far less than the cost of buying, owning and operating the same equipment.

Robert LaBelle, chief executive of AgustaWestland North America, told Reuters the companies were still working out how to structure their business partnership.

He said the initial reaction from U.S. Navy officials had been positive.

"The time is ripe," LaBelle told Reuters in a telephone interview on Sunday.

"There is not going to be a lot of growth in the defense budget, and as the current equipment gets older it gets more expensive to maintain and operate."

Doss Aviation already provides initial service-based training for all U.S. Air Force pilots, LaBelle said.

The proposal comes amid growing calls by Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's chief weapons buyer, and other officials for companies to be more innovative in helping the U.S. military modernize its equipment despite continued budget pressures.

LaBelle declined to give financial details, but said the proposal would allow the U.S. Navy to get new equipment for no additional cost beyond what it already spends annually to operate and maintain the existing, aging training helicopters.

He said AgustaWestland and the other firms hoped the Navy could issue a request for proposals for its training needs by the end of the 2016 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, or early the following year.

No comment was immediately available from the Navy about the proposal.

In a statement, Jonathan Baliff, chief executive of Bristow Group, said providing training, helicopters and simulators under a service-based contract would help the government save money at a time when government budgets were under sustained pressure.

Bristow Group provides fleet operations, maintenance, and pilot training for a range of customers, while Doss Aviation trains fixed and rotary-wing pilots for the U.S. Army and Air Force.

Rockwell Collins makes avionics equipment and flight simulation systems for the U.S. military and commercial firms.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; editing by Jason Neely)