First Purpose-Built UH-72A Training Helicopter on Its Way to Fort Rucker
"Fresh off the production line, fresh off the flight line," John Burke told reporters. "If the weather is good, we expect that aircraft to leave Columbus, Mississippi, and fly to Fort Rucker, Alabama.” Delivery to the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker could occur as early as March 26.
Airbus has already modified seven of the Army’s existing UH-72 helicopters for the training mission, said company spokesman James Darcy.
The training configuration of the Lakota differs from the baseline model in several ways, Burke said. It includes an observer seat for the instructor, and has a “buzz number” on its side that allows for easy identification. The training variant is also equipped with a flight control system that allows it to communicate with Fort Rucker.
“The major part of it is some de-modification of the aircraft,” he said. “It’s in some ways a simpler design than the fielded aircraft.”
Twenty-five Lakotas are planned to come off the production line this year, Burke said.
Airbus was the big winner of the Army’s aviation restructure initiative, which calls for the retirement of the TH-67 training helicopter and the purchase of new UH-72As to replace it. The initiative would also divest the service’s OH-58 Kiowa Warrior, swapping the reconnaissance aircraft with AH-64 Apache attack helicopters taken from the Army National Guard. Congress in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act mandated a commission to study the restructure plan, which has been unpopular with the National Guard community.
Ultimately, 187 UH-72s are planned to be stationed at Fort Rucker for training, comprising 106 purpose-built trainers and 81 already-existing Lakotas that have undergone modifications, Burke said.
The active Army’s procurement of UH-72s is slated to end in fiscal year 2016, according to the president’s budget, which set aside $187 million for 28 helicopters in that fiscal year. After that, Airbus will have to look to potential foreign military sales or purchases by the other U.S. services.
The Army National Guard uses it for domestic missions such as providing surveillance in support of the Department of Homeland Security’s drug interdiction operations along the southwestern border of Texas, Burke said. Airbus has also delivered five UH-72s to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland.
The company has demonstrated the Lakota and other aircraft for the Navy, which in 2013 issued a request for information for helicopters that could potentially replace its fleet of TH-57 Sea Ranger trainers, he said.
Airbus had also proposed the UH-72 for the Air Force’s Common Vertical Life Support Platform to replace the UH-1N Twin Hueys that support security at intercontinental ballistic missile sites, but the service’s current plan is to upgrade the Hueys instead of buying a new aircraft.
“You take a look at the current fiscal environment, and we understand the constraints everyone is under,” Darcy said. “Our position all along has been to say, when there is an opportunity, if we have a capability to match it, we will as vocally as possible share that with the customer and make them aware of the capability.”
So far, Thailand is its only international customer. The Royal Thai Army bought six aircraft last year.
“Those six aircraft should depart to Thailand … in April,” Burke said. “By July or August, those six aircraft will come off the ship in Bangkok, get configured to fly … and then support the Royal Thai Army.”
Burke said six or seven countries are interested in the Lakota either as a training or utility helicopter. About half of those are in formal discussions with Airbus, with the remaining nations currently in the business development stage.
Photo: Two UH-72A Lakotas (Army)