U.S. Army signs for new Lakota helicopters following legal battle

After years of legal wrangling, Airbus Helicopters, Inc. has finally received a contract from the U.S. Army for additional UH-72A Lakota helicopters.

Lakota Helicopter
The U.S. Army has already taken delivery of more than 412 Lakotas under previous contracts. Airbus Helicopters, Inc. president Chris Emerson is optimistic that the latest contract for 35 additional Lakotas will be the first of more orders to come. Skip Robinson Photo
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The U.S. Department of Defense announced on March 8 that Airbus has been awarded a firm-fixed-price contract valued at approximately $273 million for the procurement of 35 Lakota aircraft.

According to Airbus, the procurement will include two configurations: 17 Lakotas for the initial entry rotary-wing training mission at Fort Rucker, Alabama, and 18 Lakotas for the observer/controller mission at the Army’s Combat Training Centers. In addition to the aircraft, the contract encompasses program management, and technical and flight operator manuals.

The contract follows a two-year court battle in which Leonardo Helicopters sought to block the sole-source procurement of Lakotas for training purposes, arguing that the Army should instead hold a competition to replace its fleet of aging Bell TH-67 training helicopters.

The decision to use Lakotas as trainers was one of several changes associated with the Army’s controversial Aviation Restructure Initiative (ARI), first announced in 2013. Among other things, ARI also divested the Army of its Bell OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters, replacing them with a combination of unmanned systems and Boeing AH-64 Apaches, some of those transferred from the National Guard.

Leonardo backed down from its legal challenge only last month. In the meantime, initial entry rotary-wing classes at Fort Rucker have been split between Lakotas and the last of the TH-67s.

“It is so imperative that the Army get their training helicopters to Fort Rucker as soon as possible,” Emerson told Vertical on Feb. 28, explaining that Army deliveries will be a top priority for Airbus. “They need to phase out the 67s, and get all their classes moving on the Lakota. It’s safer, it’s a better curriculum for them, and the sooner we can get them those aircraft, the sooner they can do that.”

Airbus has delivered more than 412 Lakotas since the Army competitively selected the model as its Light Utility Helicopter in 2006. The 35 called for in the latest contract could be the first of many more to come — in a 2016 court filing, the Army indicated that it had identified a need for another 97 Lakotas beyond the 16 it was then seeking for training purposes.

Lakota OPFOR
Chris Emerson said that Airbus has now added a synthetic weapons “shoot-back” capability to the Lakotas being used for opposing forces training at Fort Irwin. Skip Robinson Photo

According to Emerson, those 97 aircraft reflect increased training requirements at Fort Rucker, as well a need for operational readiness float aircraft, especially with existing Lakotas coming up on overhaul. The Army is also seeking more Lakotas for the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, where the model is used for opposing forces training.

But Emerson suggested that the National Guard may seek additional Lakotas, too. The ARI called for transferring Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the active Army to National Guard units, as a way of balancing the transfer of Apaches out of the Guard. However, “it’s costly for Guard units to just operate Black Hawks,” Emerson pointed out, pitching the Lakota as a “great alternative.”

“I think now that this litigation is behind us, we can start to talk again with the Army, we can talk with the National Guard Bureau,” he continued. “You won’t ever do an Apache mission with a Lakota. But what other missions can you do with a Lakota that you don’t want to do with a very expensive Black Hawk?”

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With military prospects looking up, the Lakota production line in Columbus, Mississippi, is also getting a boost from the civil side of the house. Airbus announced at HAI Heli-Expo 2018 that Metro Aviation has placed an order for 25 EC145e helicopters — a variant of the civil EC145 on which the Lakota is based — which will also be manufactured in Columbus.

The EC145e is lighter in weight than the original EC145, and less expensive than the latest model in the series, the Fenestron-equipped H145. The e model launched in 2015 as a visual flight rules (VFR)-only aircraft, although Metro, which placed an initial order for six e models, has worked with Genesys Aerosystems to obtain supplemental type certificates for an electronic flight instrument system, autopilot, and stability augmentation system for the helicopter; and is working towards instrument flight rules (IFR) certification this year.

“I do believe we’re going to see e’s beyond just the 25 that Mike [Stanberry, Metro’s CEO] has ordered,” Emerson told Vertical. “I do believe there’s a segment where that’s going to work, with air medical operators who only fly VFR, who don’t ever file an IFR flight plan, who are sea level, who don’t need that performance [of the H145].”

Emerson said that Airbus will be able to “feather” Metro’s orders through the Lakota production line without impacting Army deliveries.

“You’ll remember that at the heyday of the Lakota we were delivering 55 a year,” Emerson said. “I have committed to the Army that they are our priority.”

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