UH-72 Lakota Training
1 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – U.S. Army Warrant Officer 1 Josh Bilby, assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 145th Aviation Regiment, performs a hover taxi in a UH-72 Lakota Helicopter on Toth Stagefield Army Heliport, Fort Rucker, AL,. November 8, 2019. These Army Aviation students are completing their first phase of flight training to become U.S. Army helicopter pilots. (U.S. Army Reserve Photo by Staff Sgt. Austin Berner) (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Austin Berner) VIEW ORIGINAL
UH-72 Lakota Training
2 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – U.S. Army Warrant Officer 1 Amy Berner, assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 145th Aviation Regiment, walks off of the flight line after flying a UH-72 Lakota Helicopter on Toth Stagefield Army Heliport, Fort Rucker, AL,. November 8, 2019. These Army Aviation students are completing their first phase of flight training to become U.S. Army helicopter pilots. (U.S. Army Reserve Photo by Staff Sgt. Austin Berner) (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Austin Berner) VIEW ORIGINAL
UH-72 Lakota Training
3 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – U.S. Army Warrant Officer 1 Josh Bilby, assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 145th Aviation Regiment, walks off of the flight line with his Instructor Pilot Jason Smith after flying a UH-72 Lakota Helicopter on Toth Stagefield Army Heliport, Fort Rucker, AL,. November 8, 2019. These Army Aviation students are completing their first phase of flight training to become U.S. Army helicopter pilots. (U.S. Army Reserve Photo by Staff Sgt. Austin Berner) (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Austin Berner) VIEW ORIGINAL

It’s often said that U.S. Army aviation begins at Fort Rucker, Alabama. To be more specific, it begins at Cairns Army Airfield on Fort Rucker and takes place in a pure fleet of UH-72 Lakota helicopters.

Prior to 2016, Army aviators trained on the TH-67 Creek helicopter, which was introduced in 1993. The last remaining Creek helicopter has been divested and the fleet is now exclusively composed of Lakotas.

The UH-72, a commercial-off-the-shelf helicopter manufactured by Airbus, was introduced to the Army fleet as the medevac unit at Fort Rucker and has since transitioned to the primary trainer for the Army, according to Bob Butler, who works for Aviation Center Logistics Command and manages Cairns Army Airfield at Fort Rucker.

“This is the foundation for all of Army aviation. Every aviator in the U.S. Army – to include foreign nationals and some Air Force personnel – goes through the Lakota training program,” said Butler. “The School of the Americas is no longer here, so anyone flying helicopters in most places, who comes through our schools, all start in a Lakota aircraft.”

The number of students cycling through the Army’s traditional initial rotary wing flight training has been increasing over the past three years, leading to a dramatic rise in the number of flight hours.

“The Army identified there was a shortage of pilots and has been putting more pilots through flight school,” said Butler. “Since FY20, our flight hours have increased from just over 87,000 to nearly 125,000 [forecasted this year]. It’s a serious uptick.”

The growing number of flight hours includes annual proficiency tests and training for instructor pilots, as well as other support staff that need flight time to keep current on requirements.

U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command’s Aviation Center Logistics Command fills a vital role in Army aviation by improving the training fleet’s readiness through the completion of maintenance functions and reducing negative impacts to training.

The Army’s traditional initial rotary wing flight training model is 32 weeks and consists of four phases. Upon graduation, students will have accumulated 179 hours of flight instruction that includes 149 in an aircraft and 30 in a simulator.

In phase three of initial training, which is taught by instructors with 1st Battalion, 212th Aviation Regiment, students move from the simulator to the aircraft. They progress from basic instrument procedures to navigation on federal airways and fly between Cairns and Shell Army Airfield, also located on Fort Rucker.

During phase four of training, students learn combat skills, extensive night vision goggles training and tactical night operations.

“All primary transitions happen at Cairns. We average 1,000 sorties per week between Cairns and Shell, and average roughly 70 aircraft per sortie.” said Butler.

Advanced graduate flight training is the specialized training where students qualify in the AH-64 (D) Apache, CH-47F Chinook, UH-60M Black Hawk, or learn to become a fixed-wing pilot.

All that flying highlights the need for a reliable maintenance program. Cairns has three maintenance hangars, which is where all the heavy maintenance – or scheduled maintenance – is performed. Cairns’ maintenance team comprises approximately 700 contractors working in three shifts to provide around the clock support. This is in addition to the government civilians who provide oversight and coordinate with U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and the Lakota Product Office for parts coordination in the Program Executive Office – Aviation.

“On every airframe, we average 575 hours per year, which means we have to phase every aircraft at least once a year,” said Butler. “A phase is a 400-hour cycle that the aircraft is in heavy maintenance. That’s how we do our maintenance planning.”

All 217 UH-72s currently in the fleet at Fort Rucker are covered by a contractor logistical support contract, which is atypical in Army aviation but saves money and resources.

“It’s basically power by the hour. Airbus is the manufacturer of the airframe and they supply all the parts to the government on a Contract Logistics Support contract. If [maintenance] falls within the parameters of fair wear and tear, then it is covered under the CLS contract at no additional cost to the government for what we're already paying them per flight hour.”

The years-long transition from the TH-67 to the UH-72 was not without growing pains. It required ACLC staff and repairers to make significant changes to day-to-day business of maintaining the Army’s training fleet.

“At one point we had TH-67s here, then we became a mixed fleet of TH-67s and UH-72s,” said Butler. “Maintenance for the TH-67s was not a CLS contract, and [the manufacturer] Bell was forward deployed with a large warehouse and an abundance of parts sitting in place.

“Having contractors who do the maintenance change their practices to meet the CLS contract was a challenge,” said Butler. “Additionally, the CLS contract doesn’t necessarily align with the maintenance contract, so getting those two to mesh has been ongoing.”

Regardless of the logistical issues, the transition to a UH-72 pure fleet is complete in every aspect and the benefits are more than financial.

“The footprint the Army has for our supply system is minimal,” said Butler. “Where other programs have storage depots – and large stocks of items the government keeps for the Blackhawks, AH-64s [Apaches], the Chinooks – the government does not have to do that for the Lakota program. Airbus is responsible for that as part of the contract.”