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Romania: Dracula Helicopter Taking Off

By Breffni O'Rourke and Radu Busneag

Prague, 16 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A major project to build an advanced military helicopter in Romania looks like it's going ahead, following delays over financing.

The helicopter is the Dracula, a variant of the American Bell Super Cobra attack aircraft. Success of the project is essential if Romania is to maintain and enhance its capacity to build sophisticated rotary-wing aircraft.

The Romanian company involved is the state-owned IAR-Ghimbav factory in Brasov, where the assembly lines that have turned out hundreds of helicopters in past years are now idle. Even though the only work available is the repair and servicing of existing aircraft, IAR has kept-on its 2,400 skilled workers, many at reduced pay, in the hope that the Dracula project will come to fruition.

IAR's marketing manager Stefan Paunescu told RFE/RL (on Dec. 16) that the company expects the financing problems to be solved in the coming weeks. Paunescu would not disclose details of where the money would come from, but he replied positively when asked if there are concrete grounds to suppose Dracula will now get off the ground. He said work on the first aircraft would begin as soon as a deal is in place.

At the headquarters of Bell Helicopters in Fort Worth, Texas, a company spokesman could not confirm the breakthrough, but he also gave a generally upbeat assessment of prospects. He told RFE/RL (on Dec. 15) that money had been sought from private sources outside Romania, for instance in the United States and West Europe. This money would presumably be made available to the government in Bucharest in the form of a loan. Reports have said that an estimated $1.5 billion is needed by the government to finance the purchase of more than 90 Draculas for the Romanian armed forces.

A contract signed in May of this year stipulates that assembly will be done at Brasov, along with the manufacture of many components, while the engine will be manufactured by the Turbomecanica company in partnership with General Electric. Other companies will also be involved. Bell has expressed confidence that the Dracula, once in production, can be sold to other countries, though they have not specified any particular market.

Bell's chief spokesman Carl Harris explained that the deal as agreed with the Romanian government last spring was that Bell would take a majority 70 percent stake in the IAR-Ghimbav factory. But part of the package was that the first 98 helicopters produced would be purchased for the Romanian armed forces. Harris said that without a guarantee covering sales of the initial production run, Bell was not interested in taking over the Brasov factory.

Problems in the original deal developed when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) questioned whether the government should commit such a high level of funding to the Dracula project at a time of acute financial restraints, because of efforts to balance the state budget. The government agreed with the IMF assessment, and no funds were made available for Dracula.

Harris said however that the government had repeatedly stressed its interest in going ahead with the project as soon as conditions allowed. He said the Super Cobra model, from which the Dracula is derived, is a very advanced attack aircraft that saw combat in the Desert Storm campaign against Iraq. For Romania to have a fleet of these aircraft could be seen as a contribution by that country to NATO defenses, he said. Romania is a candidate for membership of the NATO alliance.