From its beginnings to the present day, helicopters journey towards excellence

From the early days of Agusta to the AW139: a story of challenges and expertise that has made Leonardo a leading company in the sector.



helicopter models for the Italian Air Force from the beginnings to the present


hours flown by HH3F, saving around 7,000 people


Italian Air Force NH500 used to train the helicopter pilots of all the armed forces


AW139 in service with ITAF

The Italian helicopter industry was born and began its development in the early 1950s in Lombardy with the Agusta family, which at the start of that century had founded the Costruzioni Aeronautiche Giovanni Agusta company, later to become AgustaWestland and now Leonardo. The AB47G was the first Agusta helicopter, built under licence from Bell in the 1950s. This was the starting gun for a process of growth in terms of design, development and production, with mainly proprietary models, which led the company to become one of the major industry leaders at the global level and to enter into joint programmes with other European nations.

From the early days until today, the Italian Air Force has acquired nine models in different versions: AB47, AB204, SH-3D, HH-3F, A109, NH500, AB212, HH-139, HH-101.

The 1970s onwards saw continued development in terms of technology and innovation within the helicopter sector. The design of the AB 212 SAR, again under licence from Bell, dates back to 1968. Two versions were developed to be optimised for specific uses: the AB 212 ASW, an anti-submarine version in service with the Italian Navy, and the AB 212 SAR (Search and Rescue) produced for the Italian Air Force, which acquired the first three aircraft in 1979. Today, as many as 30 AB 212s are still in service with the Air Force fleet.

AB212 SAR, 1970

The HH-3F, a twin-engine military helicopter optimised for SAR and personnel recovery - produced in this case under licence from the Sikorsky Corporation - joined the Air Force fleet in 1977 with 35 aircraft. Nicknamed the “Pelican”, it completed more than 185,000 hours in flight, saving around 7,000 people, up until 2014. It was the predecessor of the market best-selling AW139, a helicopter used for SAR operations, medical evacuations, transport and fire-fighting missions, and - in recent years - also as a Slow Mover Interceptor on the occasion of major national events.

Italy's first homegrown success, the A109 - a helicopter designed and produced entirely by Agusta - took off on its maiden flight in 1971 at Cascina Costa di Samarate (Varese) and began service with the Italian Air Force in 1976: two aircraft were delivered to the 31° Stormo for state transport purposes (for Italy's high institutional offices and the President of the Republic), and one for Civil Defence. In 1987, a trainer helicopter went into production that was to prove a huge success in the Italian armed forces: the NH500, built under licence. Fifty of these were delivered to the Italian Air Force and used to train the helicopter pilots of all the armed forces.

In 2000, the acquisition of Westland Helicopters - a British leader in the sector - led to the creation of AgustaWestland. The new group implemented the market launch of the AW101, the development of which had begun in the late 1970s and early 1980s through a joint project by the two separate companies, Agusta and Westland, to modernise the fleets of Italy and the United Kingdom. In service with the Italian Air Force in its HH-101A variant since 2016, it carries out various types of missions including air support for special operations and the recovery of people in crisis zones. Its use was fundamental during the pandemic thanks to the installation of the bio-containment solution on the HH-101A "Caesar" helicopters of the 15th Wing of Cervia for transporting patients. This solution supported by Leonardo is a landmark in the use of space on-board helicopters, as it completely isolates pilots and passengers, while ensuring functionality and airworthiness. To integrate this solution, Leonardo has been able to use versatile components that have been adapted to create life-saving equipment, such as power supply and ventilation systems, the same as those used in hospital intensive care units.

The AW139, which was certified in 2004 and rapidly became an international best seller, entered into service with the Italian Air Force in 2012 with two versions: the HH-139A and HH-139B. With its advanced, high-performance features and cutting-edge avionics, the AW139 boasts an exceptional record as the best-selling twin-engine helicopter in its class; with over 30 helicopters, the Italian Air Force today has the largest operational military fleet of this model in the world.