The US Army received its 100th UH-72 Lakota yesterday with an atypically lavish delivery ceremony. Dignitaries gathered inside the EADS North America hangar on the outskirts of Columbus, Mississippi, included Governor Haley Barber and even his wife. A real Lakota Indian chief attended (er, with apologies to General Custer), and he fully endorsed his tribe's namesake helicopter. Piles of fried catfish were served up after the ceremony -- this is, after all, Mississippi.
But who could blame the army for wanting to celebrate a little?
One former officer was overheard afterward noting an astonishing fact. No new helicopter series ordered by the army had reached the 100-aircraft delivery mark in more than 20 years. Also, not least, the ceremony occurred exactly on schedule -- and for the price the army originally agreed to pay! In my decade of aerospace industry coverage, I can think of only one other major program managing this elusive trick. Take a bow, Boeing EA-18G Growler
Unlike Boeing's Growler program, EADS had the advantage of delivering a helicopter that is limited to civilian airspace. The UH-72 is not certificated or designed to operate in combat. As I noted yesterday, that puts an asterisk on the UH-72 achievement.
But EADS still faced a big challenge, and one that has proved perilous for several aerospace companies. EADS has delivered all 100 UH-72s from a "green-field" factory. Where a planned 53 UH-72s will be built this year, there was literally a green field in the Eastern Mississippi flatlands four years ago. The Columbus area now boasts a micro-aersopace cluster, including EADS, Aurora Flight Sciences and Stark Aerospace. But there was hardly any aerospace industry presence in the area when EADS moved here in late 2006.
Building a successful green field site is not a trivial accomplishment. If Northrop Grumman/EADS North America win the KC-X contract, or a share of it, Airbus must replicate that success and stand up an A330-200 final assembly site in Mobile, Alabama.
How did EADS manage this feat?
The UH-72 experience reveals a patient, three-phase approach that heavily leveraged Eurocopter's existing assembly line in Germany. Only now, in fact, are UH-72s being fully produced at Columbus, with nearly one-third of the army's projected deliveries complete.
Eurocopter first established a "light assembly line", which covered the first 40 aircraft. These aircraft were fully assembled in Germany, shipped to the US and customized for the army customer. The second phase began in mid-2008. EADS opened a "full assembly line" in Columbus. Germany still assembled the airframe and installed the wiring harnesses, but Columbus added the avionics and mechanical systems. Starting in October 2009, EADS launched a full-up production line in Columbus. The first aircraft completely built in Mississippi will be delivered in a couple of months, which is slightly behind the schedule EADS gave me in September 2007