When LTC (promotable) David R. Cheney became the U.S. Army’s program manager for the service’s UH-72A Lakota helicopter in July 2012, Airbus had delivered 229 of the H145-based utility helicopters, and the future looked bright. Every aircraft had been delivered on time and on cost since the contract had been awarded in 2006, and the Army, Army National Guard, and even the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School were using the Lakota extensively for a wide variety of missions.
“My predecessor said, ‘Look, this is going to be the easiest job you’ve ever had,’” recalls Cheney. “Nevertheless budget challenges intervened and we had to make some very difficult decisions.”
In 2013, neither Cheney nor anyone at Airbus could have predicted where the program stands now: The Lakota is one of just four rotorcraft that the Army will fly in coming years, and it has been selected as the initial entry rotary wing trainer for the service, which is the largest single operator of rotorcraft in the world.
A week before turning over the reins of the program to his successor, and moving on to his next assignment, Cheney sat down with Airbus Helicopters to talk about the aircraft that will train every Army pilot for at least the next two decades, and explain the keys to a successful collaboration between company and customer.
AH: What are your personal impressions of the Lakota, from a military pilot’s perspective?
DC: It’s a great aircraft to fly. The Lakota provides exceptional performance and agility. The rigid rotor makes it extremely responsive to pilot inputs. It’s relatively easy to fly, yet nimble and maneuverable, and it is also a fun aircraft to fly. I enjoy it, and as an IFR [instrument flight rules] aircraft in the national airspace, there is no other aircraft that I’d rather fly than the Lakota.
AH: Over the last ten years, the Lakota has been used in a wide range of roles including general utility, search and rescue, medical evacuation, VIP transport, disaster response, border security and of course training. Why so many roles for a single helicopter?
DC: I think the Lakota is a uniquely versatile aircraft, and the Army has very diverse missions. And the decision to use it as our training aircraft is an example of how the Army is finding new and better ways to use it.
AH: When the Army selected a new light utility helicopter in 2006, what attributes favored a civil aviation platform?
DC: When the Army decided to buy a commercial aircraft, the impetus of that was affordability, and it was certainly an outside-the-box approach that the Army had never done before in this magnitude. The affordability and viability of the [H145] aircraft as a commercial platform makes it affordable for us, and that’s huge for the missions the Lakota was intended for.
AH: Why do you think the Army decided to make the Lakota its newest initial entry rotary wing trainer?
DC: I think the main reason is that the Lakota replicates our tactical fleet with twin engines and a glass cockpit. Moreover, the Lakota is a great instrument trainer and student pilots can now learn RNAV [helicopter area navigation routes] and precision RNAV approaches that weren’t an option in the legacy fleet. Also, the Lakota is a much cheaper platform to operate than other aircraft in the Army inventory.
AH: What kind of feedback have you received from the Army’s training command since the first classes began training on the Lakota last year?
DC: It’s been very positive. The reason they now like it is because of the ease with which it allows them to do their mission. They don’t have to worry about logistics; they don’t have to worry about maintenance. The Lakota is a capability that they go out and operate, and for a unit like theirs that’s focused on training, that’s the mission. The Lakota is really the best solution. It’s an enabler.
AH: How have students reacted to the aircraft? Has learning to fly in a complex glass cockpit environment proven to be difficult for students as compared to legacy, analog platforms?
DC: I have received feedback that our student pilots like the Lakota’s technology.
AH: What have been the benefits or the challenges of moving to a twin-engine trainer instead of a simpler single-engine platform? Is it harder for the students?
DC: Two engines is always safer than one, and we’re allowing our student pilots to learn from day one how to trouble-shoot the loss of a single engine and rely on the other engine to keep the rotor blades turning.
As far as the difficulty, the feedback we’re getting is that because it’s a more stable aircraft, the students are actually able to more quickly pick up the tasks. We can focus on operating the helicopter as a system of systems in a combat environment, and less about the mechanics of flying a helicopter.
Hovering, for example, used to take twice as long in some cases as it does now in the Lakota, just because of the stability that comes with the Lakota. If you pick a Lakota up to a hover and take your hands off the controls, it will generally hold its position. It’s really not about the helicopter per se. The helicopter is a tool, and piece of equipment.
AH: Speaking of the people, do you have any parting words for the workforce in Columbus, Mississippi, where the Lakota is manufactured?
DC: I go to Columbus regularly, I’ve met the employees that build the aircraft on the line, and when I spoke earlier about never having to worry about the production of the aircraft or the quality of the aircraft coming off the line, I know why that is. I know those employees, I’ve met them, and I’ve looked them in the eye. This has been a hard business to be in the last couple years, and I really appreciate the dedication of that workforce. They do a great job and I thank them for their service and the capability they deliver to the Army every month. To revolutionize our training and to bring our training into the 21st century, that was important. And it will continue to be important for years to come.
AH: What has been the best thing about your tenure as the Army’s UH-72A program manager?
DC: The best thing for me personally is just the complexity of the challenges we’ve been faced with the last four years. From the vast changes in requirements and all the problem solving and creativity between the Army team and the Airbus team to respond to those challenges, and adapt ourselves to be quicker and react to change, and work together to solve very, very complex problems.
Almost every week in my spare time I deliver aircraft down to Fort Rucker, and it is amazing to see what a hundred Lakotas down there looks like. And I take a lot of pride in that, because it’s been a huge amount of work on both the Army and Airbus team to make that happen.
AH: Any parting words as you move on to your next challenges?
DC: If history holds true, the last Lakota flight student has not even been born yet. That’s a pretty amazing thing to think about. And I think we can all take a lot of pride in that. I’m just one small piece of a giant effort that produces capability for the Army.
It’s easy to be passionate about this program. The Army has been through a very challenging time, and it takes all of us to be able to continue to deliver something as important as the Lakota is to the Army. That’s why I do this. This is a hard business to be in and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Someone has to keep the rotor blades turning, and that’s us. That’s the Army, and that’s Airbus.
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