Brig. Gen. Michael Lundy, commander of the Army Aviation Center of Excellence, gives US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel an update on the Army Aviation restructure plan at Fort Rucker, Ala. (Marcus Weisgerber / Staff)
FORT RUCKER, ALA. — A US Army general defended his service’s decision to buy 100 Airbus UH-72 Lakota helicopters for pilot training, saying the new aircraft will better prepare aviators at a lower overall operating cost.
The Army, in the Pentagon’s 2015 budget proposal, put forth a plan to retire its Bell TH-67 Creek and OH-58 Kiowa training helicopters, replacing them with Lakotas, which are currently flown by the Army National Guard for stateside missions.
“We’re producing a high-quality aviator because he or she is being trained in something that is much closer to their go-to-war mission aircraft,” Brig. Gen. Michael Lundy, commander of Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker, said of the Lakota during a Thursday meeting with reporters.
The plan has been criticized by helicopter companies, which say the Army should have conducted a competition for a new training helicopter instead of deciding to buy 100 Lakotas. The Army plans to complete the transition to the Lakota by 2019, Lundy said.
“It’s not going to be a one-for-one swap,” he said. “We’re gradually going to draw down.”
At Fort Rucker, the home of Army helicopter training, the service is currently building up its Lakota instructor pilots, Lundy said. The base has received its first five aircraft. Student pilots will start training in the Lakota next year, Lundy said.
Using one aircraft instead of two for pilot training will speed up the process, since students will only need to familiarize themselves with one aircraft, Lundy said.
“One aircraft, the Lakota, enables us to be able to gain that time back that we’re wasting on that second aircraft and the basic training of it and do other things,” he said.
For instance, the Army will be able to train pilots using night-vision goggles in the Lakota. They are currently trained to use night-vision goggles once they graduate to Chinook or Black Hawk choppers, which are far more expensive to fly. There is not enough time under the current training syllabus to train on night vision since students must be trained on two training aircraft, the general said.
Lundy said moving night-vision goggle training into the Lakota will save the Army about $30 million per year.
Lundy showed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel all three aircraft: — the Creek, Kiowa and Lakota. During the tour, Lundy pointed out the digital avionics in the Lakota versus the other legacy models.
In a meeting with reporters, Lundy said the Lakota has a better simulator capability than the Creek and Kiowa.
The Army aviation restructure also calls for retiring all Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warriors and moving Boeing AH-64 Apaches from the National Guard to the active duty in exchange for Black Hawks and Lakotas. ■