It has been ‘learn as you go’ for the U.S. Army and National Guard with the very versatile Airbus UH-72A Lakota. In March of this year, the first trainer-configured UH-72A helicopter for the U.S. Army rolled off the production line at Airbus Helicopters’ assembly plant in Columbus, Mississippi. Training is a relatively recent mission for the light, twin-engine Lakota, which has often been described as one of the most successful aircraft procurement programs in U.S. defense department history.
The UH-72A is a military version of the civilian EC145, which is deployed for law enforcement duties, emergency medical transport, plus offshore and utility operations. The military version includes a VEMD (Vehicle and Engine Multifunction Display); an advanced communications system for border security; sliding side and rear clamshell doors to optimize access and quick evacuation; plus a night vision-compatible glass cockpit which synthesizes flight and vehicle information to increase situational awareness.
Since 2006, when Airbus Helicopters defense business was handed its first major U.S. breakthrough with an initial order for eight UH-72A helicopters, the U.S. has been rapidly expanding the versatile Lakota’s mission profile. This now includes a wide range of safety and security taskings such as border security, medical evacuation, transport, search and rescue, and fire suppression missions. Subsequent orders have been placed in batches of 34-55 every year since that first order.
The program escaped a near death experience in 2013, when Congress’ across-the-board sequestration cuts forced the army to halt the program and trim the initial order by 31 aircraft. The cuts also scuppered Airbus plans to offer an AAS-72X armed variant to the Army’s Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) procurement program, which was also cancelled. Though dead, the program may not be completely buried. Two high ranking Army reps went to Washington in March 2015 to argue that the armed program be resurrected, saying that a valid requirement for manned and armed scout helicopters still exists. In fact, the U.S. Army’s manned and armed scout aerial program is being supported by a dwindling number of OH-58 Kiowa Warriors and Boeing AH-65 Apache replacement aircraft. Over the longer term, should the Army gets its way and the AAS program rebounds, expect the mission adaptability, economics and reliability of the UH-72A Lakota to propel the AAS-72X armed version to the top of the list.
Despite the budget cuts, it likely made little sense to chop such a low-cost program as the UH-72A, particularly since the Lakota provides such a wide array of mission capability that can help the Army cut operating costs, especially when its modernization budget is at an historic low. An intense lobby effort by Airbus, plus having the National Guard in eight states on side, began to sway decision-makers.
In February 2015, Army Training ordered an additional 41 UH-72A, bringing Airbus’ Lakota order book to 411 aircraft, including five ordered by the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in FY2008 and six to Thailand in FY2014 (FY: 1 Oct to 30 Sept).
Major General Augustus Collins isn’t surprised. As the Adjutant General of Mississippi, Major General Collins serves as Commanding General of both the Mississippi Army and Air National Guard. He now has a fleet of eight Lakotas at his disposal, including four that are used for medevac operations. His first experience in a Lakota was a flight from Joint Force Headquarters in Jackson to the Camp Shelby field training site.
“You fall in love with the aircraft right away,” Collins tells FrontLine. “It’s not as big as a [Sikorsky] Black Hawk, but the thing I like most about it, is it doesn’t cost as much to fly as other aircraft we have. It costs about 50 percent as much as a Black Hawk per hour. You get a lot of utility out of this aircraft.”
This is especially important in a state like Mississippi that gets hit with a mixed bag of severe weather incidents each year, including floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and ice storms. “We are more diverse when you look at the types of missions we might be called upon to perform in the National Guard,” Collins adds. “We don’t get a lot of snow. Precipitation comes mostly in the form of ice. Once you get ice on the roads and power lines, it’s a whole set of different problems. We have a lot of different scenarios that we have to be prepared to react to, and this aircraft helps us with that.”
Collins points out that before he arrived at Jackson in January 2012, several Mississippi-based Lakotas were deployed to the Gulf Coast to respond to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, where they monitored the oil containment area and scouted for breaks in oil booms.
Medical evacuations keep the Mississippi fleet busy, including providing medical support during training exercises at Camp Shelby. Still, the biggest surprise for the Major General was the aircraft’s adaptability for fire suppression.
Camp Shelby is the largest state-owned training field in the U.S. and includes land leased from the United States Forestry Service that is used as a training area. “It is not uncommon when we are firing large calibre weapons, if it has been particularly dry, that we set off some fires. We get the Lakota to pinpoint exactly where the fires are. But it also has the capability to attach a water bucket to the bottom, fly over to one of the lakes and quench the fire,” Collins explains. “Water bucket duty was what surprised me. If somebody asked me the different types of jobs a Lakota could do before I came here, that’s one I wouldn’t have named. I didn’t think it would have the horsepower to do that, but it performs quite well.”
Mississippi Lakotas also fly missions to the southwest border where they fly homeland security missions against drug smuggling and people trafficking. “We have rotations for different stages along the southwest border that our aviators and aircraft have participated in,” Collins confirms.
The Lakota that came off the Airbus assembly line in Columbus in March was delivered to the U.S. Army’s primary aviation training base in Fort Rucker, Alabama. It joined seven UH-72AAs that had already been modified and re-purposed as initial-entry training helicopters and will be integrated into the Initial Entry Rotary Wing Training program in early fiscal 2016. Ultimately, 187 UH-72As will be stationed at Fort Rucker, including 81 modified Lakotas.
“Fort Rucker,” which is shorthand for “training” in army circles, raised eyebrows when it selected the Lakota to replace the Bell TH-67A Creek helicopters as part of the Army’s Aviation Restructuring Initiative, but it is proving to be a good choice. “It is a pretty efficient aircraft,” says Captain Nicholas Tucker, a training officer with the Colorado-based High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site (HAATS), near Vail. “One of the things that makes the Lakota worthwhile is it is a dual engine. So you are going to have all your students starting out on a dual engine. It has a lot more power available than what we used to have in the [Bell] OH-58.” This is important for an operation like HAATS, which trains exclusively on aircraft power. “We call it power management. “We train people to fly in the mountains. We teach them how to manage their power and think about it. They have to know how much they’ve got, and how much they need in any situation,” Tucker points out.
“There is not an army aircraft out there that is better for instrument training,” he asserts. “If you are learning instruments at Fort Rucker, this is the aircraft to learn them in. The autopilot feature allows the student to focus on instrument flying.”
Tucker has been flying Lakotas since 2010, but was still impressed by its capability when it arrived in Colorado. “I flew it in North Carolina and was not expecting it to perform as well as it does up here in Colorado in high altitudes. We put it down at 13,000 feet. It operates very well at pretty high altitudes.”
The U.S. Army has taken delivery of 325 of the 400 Lakotas it has on order, with the National Guard being one of the most extensive users, where it has been proven to be a responsive and adaptable machine. “It’s not a combat aircraft, but it has multiple utility uses, especially inside the United States,” Major General Collins says.
Outside of the U.S., six UH-72A helicopters have been ordered by the Royal Thai Army (RTA), under the American-backed Foreign Military Sales Program. The RTA is expected to apply to order a further nine aircraft under the same program. RTA Lakotas would be used on missions similar to those performed in the U.S., as well as counter-insurgency in the coup-prone country, and to free up the Black Hawk fleet for heavy equipment missions. The RTA is expected to take delivery of its first Lakotas by late summer 2015.
The company is eyeing the Lakota as a replacement aircraft for the approximately 5,000 ageing Bell UH-1 Huey helicopters still operating worldwide, and is reported to have drawn interest from up to six countries, including Iraq.
With global attention, satisfied repeat customers like the U.S. Army, and back orders for a further 79 UH-72As, Airbus Helicopters will clearly be keeping the production line busy until at least 2017.
David Carr is a communications and freelance writer specializing in aerospace and air transport issues.
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