“The biggest benefit for me is the lower workload, and that’s a direct result of the aircraft’s altitude hold and autopilot. I’ve always had to hand-fly everything I’ve flown,” said CW4 Mike Tucker, a Lakota pilot with the Mississippi Army National Guard’s (MANG) Company C, 1st Battalion, 114th Aviation. “At 500 feet or so, you just punch the autopilot on and altitude hold or heading hold and the three-axis autopilot does just about everything for you,” Tucker added.
In June 2008, the 114th Avn became the first Army Guard unit to equip with the Lakota. Today, they fly four UH-72As from Tupelo, Miss., and are delighted with the change after transitioning from the OH-58 Kiowa. If MANG crews are happy about transitioning to the UH-72A, the U.S. Army and Congress are even more pleased with the success and rapid fielding of the Light Utility Helicopter (LUH).
Launched in 2004, along with two additional programs (the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter and Joint Cargo Aircraft) in the wake of the RAH-66 Comanche program cancellation, the LUH is a key element in the Army’s Aviation Modernization Program. Like the other programs, the idea behind LUH was to quickly identify, acquire and field a platform capable of performing a range of utility missions by purchasing an extant Commercial-Off-the-Shelf design.
On June 30, 2006, the Army selected EADS North America’s UH-145 variant of its civilian EC-145 as the winner of the LUH competition. By December 11 of the same year the first helicopter, designated the UH-72A Lakota, was delivered. Just over six months later, in June 2007, the National Training Center’s (NTC) Air Ambulance Detachment at Fort Irwin received its sixth UH-72A, becoming the first operational Lakota unit.
Since then, the Army has accepted 90 Lakotas, with 88 currently in-service at 15 Army and National Guard units across the country. The program has had few hiccups, and because of its success, the Army and Congress have, “accelerated the UH-72A acquisition process,” said Col. Neil Thurgood, the U.S. Army’s Utility Helicopter Project Manager in an October press conference. Production of the last of the 345 Lakotas the Army plans to acquire was originally slated for 2016 but the final five will now be produced in 2015.
Keith Roberson, the Army’s Deputy Project Manager for Utility Helicopters told The Year in Defense Online that clarity of purpose is the reason UH-72 procurement and fielding has gone so well.
“The requirements that the Army laid down for the program were very well defined,” Roberson explained. “It was well understood what the mission was and what would be appropriate to buy. The primary requirements were to meet our homeland security mission demands, return some UH-60 Black Hawks back to the warfighter and replace UH-1H Huey and OH-58A/C Kiowa aircraft that were in the National Guard and TDA (table of distribution & allowance) units for the Army.”
Twenty-four UH-60s have so far been freed for other duties, with others expected as more UH-72s become operational. Meanwhile, EADS North America has almost completed the transition from UH-72A production at its EC-145 line in Donauworth, Germany to a new LUH production line at its subsidiary, American Eurocopter, in Columbus, Miss.
More than 500 pilots and maintainers have been trained to date by American Eurocopter at EADS North America’s Grand Prairie, Texas headquarters and at the U.S. Army’s Eastern Aviation Training Site at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa.
Operated by two and three-man crews (the MANG flies its Lakotas with a crew chief in addition to pilot and copilot), the twin-engine UH-72A can cruise at up to 131 knots and carry up to six passengers. It can be configured for a variety of missions including SAR, MEDEVAC, S & S (Security and Support, or Homeland Security), VIP transport or as an observer/controller.
“It’s been performing quite well,” Roberson said. “We’re seeing good success at NTC and other locations where the MEDEVAC birds are. It’s flying VIP missions in the greater Washington, D.C. area and the observer/controller mission at our training centers at JRTC (Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Polk, La.). We’re now standing up the UH-72A at the Joint Multinational Readiness Training Center in Hohenfels, Germany.”
So far deliveries of the Lakota have been evenly split between active Army and National Guard units. In early November, however, EADS North America delivered the first of five H-72A training helicopters to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md., to be used to train test pilots from the U.S. military and allied countries.
That was followed on Dec. 10 by the award of a fifth-year contract for the UH-72A valued at $247.2 million. It funds fiscal Year 2010 production of Lakotas to be delivered through June 2011, bringing the total number of Light Utility Helicopters ordered by the Army to 178.