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Six years in to the United States Army’s transition to the Eurocopter UH-72A Lakota as its primary non-combat helicopter, a new version of this now ubiquitous model is beginning to make its mark. The security and support (S&S) battalion mission equipment package (MEP) version of the UH-72A has begun to enter U.S. Army National Guard (ARNG) units to help them carry out homeland security, counter drug, border patrol and natural disaster support missions — and in California, the wildland firefighting support mission, too.
Undertaking the Transition
Since first entering service in 2007, several different variants of the UH-72A have been created to allow the U.S. Army to replace its aging Bell UH-1H Hueys, Bell OH-58A/C Kiowas and Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks (see p.34, Vertical 911, Spring 2010). This has not only enabled the retirement of the Kiowas and Hueys, and freed up the Black Hawks for combat missions, it has enabled the Army to field a single modern airframe in their places, aiding in training and maintenance (among other areas) and ensuring greater economies of scale.
With most of the potential upgrades and required mission packages already addressed in those earlier versions of the UH-72A, one of the last ones that still needed to be created was for the counter-drug and homeland security missions handled by the ARNG’s Reconnaissance and Aerial Interdiction Detachment (RAID) units. Since the early 1990s, ARNG RAID units have been utilizing vintage OH-58A/Cs for their missions (see p.40, Vertical, Dec.’11-Jan.’12). And while the Kiowas have done a competent job, these old stalwarts have limited the mission roles RAID units could undertake.
In fact, since entering service, the S&S UH-72As have, somewhat expectedly, demonstrated a quantum leap in capability over the OH-58As. Among other things, the new aircraft have much higher levels of crew comfort and considerably better speed and altitude performance. They can also carry additional passengers and have longer mission endurance. S&S pilots (who unfortunately could not be identified due to the nature of their counter-drug and homeland security roles) have told Vertical 911 that the UH-72A is proving to be a very good ship, and one even said, “I thought I’d miss the OH-58A, as I was one of the big supporters of the aircraft.” But, he continued, “The UH-72A’s twin engines and S&S mission equipment package bring the aircraft into an entirely new generation of capabilities.”
In the cockpit, the S&S MEP includes a EuroAvionics EuroNav moving map system; two SkyQuest 10.4-inch touch-screen displays, one each for the pilot and co-pilot; a rear observer’s console with a 15-inch video display; a SkyQuest digital video recorder; a video management system; and a Sierra Nevada Tactilink Eagle data downlink system. Externally, the helicopter has an L-3 Wescam MX-15i turreted electro-optical/infrared sensor and laser pointer, a 30-million-candlepower searchlight slaved to the MX-15, and can use the same rescue hoist found in the Lakota’s medevac variant.
There are many U.S. Army “firsts” with the UH-72A S&S MEP, including touch screens and soft keyboards. Also, everything feeds through the video management system and through any one of the three video displays. That means each crewmember could be independently working on a different task: the observer in the back could be using the MX-15 while the co-pilot was reviewing the map system and the pilot was using another sensor. Another capability of the S&S UH-72A is being able to conduct moving map database searches — the system has all the city street maps, aeronautical charts, and instrument flight rules charts for the entire United States and nautical charts for all coastal areas; plus, it can house topographical maps of the entire country.
It’s expected that all the current OH-58 RAID aircraft will be fully replaced by the S&S UH-72As by 2015. In total, 100 UH-72A S&S MEPs are scheduled to be produced. The first 16 were retrofits of existing ships; the remaining 84 will come off the production line at American Eurocopter’s Columbus, Miss., facility.
With several S&S UH-72As having already been delivered to various ARNG units, Guard pilots and crewmembers throughout the U.S. are busy either training on or getting more familiar with the new Lakota variant. And, many of the ones we spoke with seemed quite pleased with their initial experiences. Said one S&S UH-72A crewmember: “The much improved camera versus what was carried on the OH-58A RAID aircraft allows us to stand off much further — miles instead of a mile away with the OH-58A. This gives us much more flexibility. In many cases, people have no idea we are observing them. We now conduct drug and observation missions in a much different manner . . . . Crews now operate at higher altitudes, letting agents concentrate on the mission and not noise levels. We utilize maximum standoff ranges while slewing the camera and searchlight together, maximizing the system’s unique capabilities. With both thermal and daytime capability, the MX-15 camera is proving to be an exceptional system with quite amazing capabilities.”
The systems and sensors on the S&S UH-72A also allow Guard units to better support the civilian law enforcement community. Said another S&S ARNG pilot: “With the MX-15 camera, downlink and video systems, we can give much more than the OH-58A [RAID] aircraft ever could. Additionally, we are now even more capable of supporting law enforcement during lost person searches. Since we are fully night-flight capable, we can use both night vision goggles [and] the MX-15’s heat-seeking capabilities during a search and quickly resolve a stressful search for a [lost] family.”
The S&S mission equipment also helps when the National Guard in California is tasked with supporting wildland firefighting efforts. While the UH-60 Black Hawks and Boeing CH-47D Chinooks are of course the best ships to use for dropping water, the S&S UH-72A shines in the areas of command and control, fire mapping and being an overall “eye in the sky” for ground commanders.
“We like to use the UH-72 S&S version for these types [of] missions because of the moving maps and multiple FM radios on board,” said Maj. John Allen, commander of A Company, 3rd Battalion (S&S), 140th Aviation Regiment and the Stockton Army Aviation Support Facility, California Army National Guard. “We conduct these [missions] using a single pilot and have the HELCO [helicopter co-ordinator] up front so he/she has access to the radio panel to quickly switch between different frequencies. We find it is not uncommon for the HELCO to be communicating on three frequencies virtually simultaneously. In the future, we intend to add IR [infrared] fire mapping to our capability. . . . [This would provide] the incident command team with up-to-date data, including the location of spot fires. As time goes by and we understand the capabilities of the aircraft better, we envision even giving additional support during these firefighting missions.”
Gaining a Better Understanding
The diversity of the missions the S&S aircraft fly have helped reveal a variety of other benefits of these new Lakotas. For instance, during a recent three-month operational period flying border protection flights, California ARNG units were able to not only help prove the technologies the S&S UH-72As carry, but discover and gain a better understanding of the particular strengths of the MEP.
As one pilot explained: “We generally operated in three different profiles: high [4,000 feet above ground level/AGL], mid [1,500 feet AGL] and low [200 feet AGL], and saw most of our observations and seizures coming from the sensors on board the aircraft. We found night missions [gave us] the best results, as at these higher altitudes the people being observed didn’t know they were being watched. We also found, as we already knew, that the MX-15 camera is a substantial improvement over the older OH-58A’s FLIR [Systems Ultra] 7500-B camera. . . . We found the rear cabin operator station [was] a big benefit [as well. The operator had] full control over the sensors [and had] a large display screen and a comfortable chair — and that makes a big difference on a five- to six-hour night mission. . . . During an operational border mission, we often tracked different groups of people simultaneously using the MX-15, the searchlight and visually with our NVGs. When they inevitably took off in different directions, the use of multiple sensors gave us a huge advantage.”
Said another pilot: “The biggest advantage the UH-72A has over the OH-58 [is] power. We were able to operate in the mountains effectively and position the aircraft as required without much concern. The other side of that is speed. We are able to cruise about 35 percent faster than the 58, which effectively increased the size of our operational area and dramatically shortened our response time. Another thing that made commanders happy was we never had to cancel a mission because of a maintenance problem, the UH-72A was very reliable and mission capable.”
When asked to describe the overall benefits and strengths of the S&S UH-72As, Maj. Allen also took a moment to mention the benefits all the Lakota versions have provided over the Kiowas they have replaced in his A Company command. “While the OH-58A/Cs [were] trusted and reliable assets,” said Allen, “their role in our civil support mission was mostly limited to counter-drug marijuana eradication missions. The UH-72 — with its medevac, S&S mission equipment package, and slick or utility configurations — provides a staggering increase in capabilities to the unit and the California Army National Guard. Besides the observation mission, the unit can now be considered for SARs [search and rescues], HELCO, medevac, hoist, law enforcement/border security, VIP/passenger movement and general utility air movement missions. Furthermore, with a full IFR [instrument flight rules] package, we can now support missions that previously had to be canceled due to the VFR [visual flight rules] only capability of the OH-58A/Cs. This program has not been without its challenges, but overall we are very happy with this new asset and the unique capabilities it provides.”
In all, 100 new Lakotas equipped with the S&S battalion MEP will be operated by U.S. Army National Guard units across the country. The enhanced capabilities provided by this package will enable these units to seamlessly help state and local law enforcement and federal homeland security agencies in responding to natural disasters, counter-drug, law enforcement and border patrol operations, bringing in a new era of security and support.
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