Italian-headquartered aerospace and defense contractor Leonardo is promising to build a helicopter support facility adjacent to Naval Air Station Whiting Field, creating as many as 50 local jobs, if its helicopter is chosen to replace the Navy's current training helicopter. Leonardo is one of three contractors that have submitted bids for the Advanced Helicopter Training System, along with Airbus and Bell Helicopters.

MILTON — Italian-headquartered aerospace and defense contractor Leonardo is promising to build a helicopter support center adjacent to Naval Air Station Whiting Field if the company is selected to provide the Navy's next training helicopter.

NAS Whiting Field is the first training stop for all aspiring Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard helicopter pilots.

If built, the facility would bring "at least 40-50 local jobs" to the area, according to the company's Wednesday announcement of its proposal.

The Navy is scheduled to make its final decision on the Advanced Helicopter Training System by the end of this year or early next year. The Navy wants 130 helicopters and plans to start buying them by September of next year. In addition to Leonardo, bids for the replacement helicopters have been made by Airbus and Bell Helicopters.

Leonardo was the first contractor to publicly express interest in the contract, announcing its intent in February to submit its single-engine TH-119 as a replacement for the aging Bell TH-57 Sea Ranger helicopter, which the Navy proposes to stop using by 2023. In July, the TH-119 became the first single-engine helicopter in decades to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration for instrument-based flight in low-visibility and challenging weather situations.

“Leonardo continuously makes investments that bring the company closer to its customers," William Hunt of Leonardo Helicopters Philadelphia said in the company's announcement. "We hope to soon invest in Santa Rosa County."

If selected to provide the Advanced Helicopter Training System, the company says it will work with the Santa Rosa County Economic Development Office and Space Florida, the state's aerospace-focused economic development agency, to build an approximately 100,000-square-foot facility in Whiting Aviation Park, a 269-acre development adjacent to NAS Whiting Field.

Shannon Ogletree, executive director of the Santa Rosa Economic Development Office, indicated Wednesday that some work with Leonardo has already begun.

"I have been working with the company now for a few months," Ogletree said. That work has included pointing out the advantages of the local workforce, which includes a large number of military retirees that likely are well-suited for the work that Leonardo wants to do at the local suport facility, Ogletree said.

According to the company's announcement, "the facility will provide 24/7 service including spare parts, warranty processing and renewal, technical and product engineering and component and airframe repair."

Speaking as if the training helicopter contract will be awarded to Leonardo, Santa Rosa County Commissioner Don Salter is quoted in the company's announcement saying, "Santa Rosa County is honored to be working with Leonardo to continue to support the military mission at Whiting Field, bring quality jobs in aviation to Santa Rosa County, and fulfill years of planning to make Whiting Aviation Park a reality.”

Space Florida President and CEO Frank DiBello was similarly enthusiastic in the Leonardo news release, saying “Space Florida congratulates Leonardo on its selection of Santa Rosa County for its support center near Naval Air Station’s Whiting Field. Utilizing Space Florida’s toolkit, Leonardo will contribute to an already thriving aerospace and aviation industry in Northwest Florida while also serving the needs of our nation’s military.”