As competitors surface, Airbus Helicopters continues to stress the merits of the US Army’s plan to use UH-72A Lakota utility helicopters as the service’s trainer aircraft.
Company officials tell reporters on 2 May that twin-engined, glass-cockpit Lakota trainers can help reduce the army’s training costs and better prepare aviators to fly other advanced army helicopters.
The army’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, which still requires Congressional approval, calls for the service to purchase 100 Lakotas over two years, including 55 in fiscal year 2015 and 45 the following year.
That’s in addition to funding for 20 aircraft approved under the fiscal year 2014 budget.
At the same time, the army would retire its fleet of single-engined Bell Helicopter TH-67 Creek trainers, replacing them with Lakotas, which are non-militarised versions of Airbus’ EC145 civil model.
Airbus says the planned order reflects the versatility of the Lakota.
“The training mission was going to be a another extension of the natural role that the Lakota was playing for the Army,” Airbus tells Flightglobal.
The army has some 300 of the aircraft and has operated them since 2006, primarily on logistics and support missions.
Airbus also says the army’s decision may have been influenced by Airbus’ history of delivering Lakotas, which have a starting cost of about $5.5 million, within budget and on schedule.
“I think [that] made it easier for them to argue the case of why a programme like the Lakota made sense to fund,” says John Burke, Airbus Group’s UH-72A Lakota program manager.
Although the army currently trains pilots on single-engined aircraft, Airbus says using the twin-engined Lakota will “eliminate a transition step later in the training pipeline.”
That’s because pilots will need less training to move to other twin-engined aircraft in the army’s fleet, saving money and simplifying the training programme, says Airbus.
Burke says pilots training in Lakotas may initially need “more intense training”, but says “the payoff is much better.”
Bell, however, questions whether the army’s strategy will actually save money.
Mike Miller, Bell’s director of military business development, calls the Creek “a better value for initial entry training than the UH-72 Lakota.”
He notes that the army already has all the simulators, course materials and maintenance and instructor support it needs for Creeks, and says Creeks cost $1,000 to $1,500 less per flight hour than Lakotas.
“Fielding the Lakota to support initial entry training will cost hundreds of millions of dollars in transition costs that can be avoided by retaining the TH-67,” Miller says.
The army’s Creeks have an average age of 16 years and the aircraft have an "unlimited service life", Miller adds.
Airbus isn’t alone in the trainer market.
AgustaWestland announces in a 1 May media release that it will “leverage the AW119Kx’s commercial success and compete for potential US military training programs.”
“Integrating the AW119Kx into the military’s fleet of training aircraft is a common-sense solution from both a cost and operational standpoint, allowing the next generation of military aviators to train using helicopters that are more in line with those they will use in real-world military missions,” AgustaWestland North America CEO Robert LaBelle says in the release.
The AW119k is assembled in Philadelphia and has a glass cockpit with Garmin G1000 avionics.