First of Army’s new helicopters lifts off from Mississippi plant

Published 7:25 pm Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Officials say the Army’s newest helicopters — about 200 of the UH-72A Lakotas — will go to National Guard units, the country’s primary responders to disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

The first of the Lakotas lifted off Monday at American Eurocopter Corp. in Columbus.

American Eurocopter Corp. was awarded a $2.2 billion contract in July for a fleet of 322 light utility helicopters, many of which will be built at the 85,000-square-foot EADS North America plant in Columbus.

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Gen. Richard Cody, the Army’s vice chief of staff, said Monday that the Lakotas will save lives during catastrophes and free up other equipment for combat missions.

The military had been looking for a replacement for the UH-1 and OH-58 helicopters used by Guard and Army forces and directed money from a contract for Comanche helicopters to the purchase of Lakotas, Cody said.

In keeping with the military tradition of naming helicopters for Native American tribes, the UH-72A was called Lakota, a part of the Great Sioux Nation.

The Pentagon in 2004 scrapped a multibillion dollar contract with Sikorski Aircraft for the Comanche after auditors found the program was behind schedule and $3.7 billion over budget.

Lt. Gen. Clyde Vaughn, director of the Army National Guard, said the need for a small, versatile helicopter became more apparent immediately after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, when choppers plucked survivors from storm-ravaged areas.

“Instead of looking around for where you’re going to land when you’re picking folks off, you could put this thing down in a small parking area,” Vaughn said. “It’s got two motors on it, a tremendous rotor system, it gives us the capability to hoist out both sides and it is the right aircraft.”

Drawing comparisons to Katrina obviously resonates in Mississippi, which, like other Gulf Coast states, is still recovering from the unprecedented storm well over a year later.

“Is it going to affect Mississippi? You bet. Mississippi is going to get four of these right off the bat” Vaughn said. “Mississippi is going to be a key player in what happens with this particular aircraft.”

Gov. Haley Barbour, who spoke at the helicopter’s launch, said the plant’s workers are “putting our state at the forefront of this important new national defense initiative.”

The Lakotas also will free up combat helicopters like the UH-60 Black Hawks for more appropriate wartime missions like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cody said. And Guard units could use the Lakotas to take on more medevac operations.

U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said the Lakota contract will bring at least 200 new jobs to the state.

“Two years ago, American Eurocopter and EADS North America made an investment in this community. They had confidence that we could supply the skilled work force and they had confidence this community could provide the quality of life necessary to attract those types of people,” Wicker said. “We are returning that with a quality aircraft.”

Ralph D. Crosby Jr., EADS North America’s chairman and CEO, said the company is ahead of schedule on the delivery of the first Lakotas and hopes to keep it that way.

“Being able to participate in the modernization of the greatest armed forces in the world says volumes about the capabilities of our equipment. Our focus … is delivering 322 airplanes to the Army on time or ahead of time,” Crosby said.

EADS expects to deliver the second Lakota by year’s end, and 40 are expected for delivery in 2007-2008.

EADS North America is a subsidiary of European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., the world’s second-largest aerospace company behind Boeing Co.

Its Columbus plant, located on 40 acres at the Golden Triangle Airport, already builds the company’s A-Star (AS350) helicopters, and it customizes other Eurocopter models.