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Monday, September 1, 2008

New Aircraft: Lakotas Join U.S. National Guard Fleet

Ann Roosevelt

Units in Mississippi and Louisiana, and the training center in Pennsylvania, are flying the new utility helicopter.

The first Light Utility Helicopters fielded to National Guard units in Mississippi and Louisiana are ready to respond when called upon by state or federal governments.

"They’re mission ready," said Col. Barry Keeling, aviation officer for the state of Louisiana, said of the UH-72A Lakotas. Lt. Col. Tim Powell of the Mississippi National Guard said, "They’re ready right now for missions."

Based on Eurocopter’s EC145, the UH-72A is part of the U.S. Army’s broad aviation modernization plan using funds originally slated for the next-generation RAH-66 Comanche, the joint Boeing-Sikorsky armed reconnaissance helicopter terminated by the Army in 2004.

Deliveries to the Army National Guard are planned to run through Fiscal 2016. However, recent Army funding adjustments would accelerate the UH-72A procurement plan, advancing by about two years fieldings scheduled for Fiscal 2011 and subsequent years, according to National Guard Bureau officials. To date, six Lakotas have been fielded to units in Mississippi, Louisiana and for training, according to European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co (EADS) North America, which is the prime contractor to the Army on the program.

Recent Army funding adjustments would accelerate procurement of UH-72As after Fiscal 2010.

The National Guard plans to field a total of 12 UH-72As in Fiscal 2008, with fielded numbers varying during the next several years. The aircraft cost about $6 million each.

The National Guard is to receive a total of 200 Lakotas. Of those, 192 would be fielded by the six National Guard aviation security and support battalions (and divided evenly, for 32 per battalion).

Eight UH-72As are to go to the Eastern Aviation Training Site at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., the Lakota training base. The first two Lakotas arrived at Fort Indiantown Gap in July and two more are expected by the end of the year. The first training session — the Instructor Pilot Transition Course — is under way in Pennsylvania.

The Mississippi National Guard’s 1st Service Battalion of the 114th Aviation Security and Support Battalion, based in Tupelo, received the first of the Guard’s UH-72As.

"We got two in June, and expect another two [this month]," Powell said. "They’re being flown on a regular basis, as all aircraft are required to be flown on a regular basis to keep current."

The pilots he’s spoken with seem to like it very much, he said.

The first Lakotas have arrived at Pennsylvania’s Fort Indiantown Gap, the UH-72A training base, where instructor pilot transition training is under way.

Like their Army counterparts, the initial Mississippi National Guard pilots were trained at the Eurocopter subsidiary American Eurocopter in Grand Prairie, Texas, and were ready to fly when their helicopters were accepted for delivery. "Our pilots got in the Lakotas in Columbus and flew to Tupelo," Powell said. The pilots picked up the helicopters at the American Eurocopter production facility at Golden Triangle Regional Airport in Columbus, Miss., about 60 mi southeast of Tupelo. The Lakotas are built by Eurocopter in Germany and undergo final assembly in Columbus; American Eurocopter is required to transition to full assembly of the aircraft in Mississippi under the Army contract.

The helicopter, with its ability to lift more than 3,000 lb, is expected to greatly enhance the Guard’s ability to support the military and state missions, including disaster relief.

The Mississippi Guard did not need to make any changes or investments to accommodate the new helicopters.

"We’re about to start an expansion project to the aviation facility in Tupelo," Powell said, but it has nothing to do with the Lakota’s arrival. It is a planned modernization and not yet under way. The project would add space and improve maintenance capability for the Guard’s aircraft, which include Bell Helicopter OH-58A and Ds and UH-1s, Boeing AH-64 Apaches and CH-47 Chinooks and Sikorsky Aircraft UH-60 Black Hawks.

C Co of the Louisiana Guard’s 1-114 Aviation Security and Support Battalion received its first two helicopters in July.

Keeling said Louisiana Guard pilots "really enjoy it," from what he heard from pilots who were qualified before the helicopters arrived.

The Army has given the Guard initial approval to move ahead with a requirement for unique aircraft mission equipment optimized for the homeland defense/security missions — such as forward looking infrared sensors — or similar equipment on current OH-58As in the security and support aviation battalions, according to Guard officials. Guard Lakotas also likely will need to be fitted with air conditioning since they will be used to fly state governors and other VIPs on disaster-survey and other missions.

Realistically, getting the homeland defense/security gear is still about two years out.

Early on, issues surfaced showing that the helicopter had overheating problems. EADS North America made changes and, where the Army requires it, will add air conditioning — something standard in commercial versions of the aircraft. The military tends not to require air conditioning because it adds weight and reduces performance.

The Louisiana Guard has about 35 other aircraft, including UH-1s, UH-60s and OH-58s. About the only thing the Louisiana Guard did have to buy to accommodate the new Lakotas were a couple of maintenance stands, Keeling said. Some unique tools and test equipment were issued with the aircraft.

The Guard maintains its own helicopters and sent its military mechanics to school for FAA certificates so they comply with FAA regulations. The Lakotas are maintained as FAA-certified commercial aircraft.

The helicopters will move into a new state-of-the-art aviation facility where there’s plenty of space, again, not specifically built for the Lakotas.

Last month, two more UH-72As were to be delivered to the Louisiana Guard and two to the Florida Guard, which is the next unit to receive the Lakotas.

The Army received its first UH-72A Lakota in November 2006 — after the contract award in June of that year. Operational service began in early 2007 at Fort Irwin, Calif. Full-rate production was approved in August 2007.

The Lakota takes on non-combat missions and will be used primarily by the Guard for homeland defense/security, search and rescue, medical evacuation and counter-drug operations.

The twin-turbine, single-rotor helicopter with modern avionics can carry as many as 11 and can conduct operations during the day, at night and in all types of weather. Additionally, the helicopter can fly up to 145 kt. It is expected to replace the single-engine UH-1 and Kiowa C model.

Under the Army contract, Sikorsky provides contractor logistics support of the Lakotas. American Eurocopter provides, as required, the initial pilot and functional check flight training and the maintenance qualification course for the new Light Utility Helicopter for the National Guard maintenance personnel.

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