WASHINGTON - The 121st Medical Company (Air Ambulance) on Thursday went from flying the Army's oldest aircraft to flying its newest.
The District of Columbia Army National Guard unit took delivery of two UH-72A Lakota Light Utility Helicopters, trading in a pair of their Vietnam-era UH-1 Iroquois, more commonly known as the Huey.
"In my 36-year career, I can only think of two times when the National Guard received brand new equipment straight from the factory," said Gen. Craig McKinley, the chief of the National Guard Bureau. "We are good at maintaining older equipment, but we are better at taking newer equipment and making it last."
Scheduled to receive a total of six Lakotas by the end of the year, the 121st - the first medical evacuation unit to receive the Lakota - will continue to fly its remaining UH-1s as they phase in the new aircraft.
"The citizens of the District of Columbia and the surrounding states surely will appreciate having this equipment here," McKinley said. "The medical response capability that it provides will be significant, and our nation needs to have the newest, best equipment."
Ralph Crosby, the chairman and chief executive officer of Lakota-supplier EADS North America, was on hand for the delivery. The National Guard "is doing more directly to contribute to the security goals of the United States than at any time in history," Crosby said, noting more than 124,000 Guardmembers were actively serving on deployments on Thursday. "Each of you who wear this uniform has much to be proud of."
The new aircraft is a substantial upgrade over the Huey.
"It's a very attractive aircraft, very smooth, and two generations above what we're flying now, the Hueys," said Sgt. George Wagner, a crew chief with the unit. "It's a very capable, competent aircraft and will be a good addition to the D.C. Army National Guard."
One reason for that generational leap is that the Lakota incorporates many technologies that weren't available when the Hueys were manufactured.
"These aircraft have autopilot and GPS and automation systems that far outshine what's on the UH-1," said Lt. Col. Maureen Bellamy, the senior Army aviation officer for the DC ARNG.
Other features of the aircraft include twin engines and a four-blade main rotor, which means an increase in safety.
"The dual engine capability gives us a redundancy and an increase in safety for the people we fly over and the people we fly inside our aircraft," said Bellamy, who added that most of the unit's mission set can be accomplished with just one engine.
And that dual engine and four-blade rotor system also means a faster top cruising speed and a longer range, unit members said.
"Flying these aircraft back (from Mississippi), we were flying about 300 miles before we needed to refuel," Bellamy said.
Though the Lakota has many upgrades over the Huey it replaces, the helicopter's newness brings with it a different set of issues and concerns.
"Typically, when you go to an instructor pilot course it's because you're experienced in the aircraft," said Chief Warrant Officer Steve Mueck, senior instructor pilot for the DC ARNG. "I had nine hours from the factory when I went to (the Lakota) instructor pilot course, so I didn't even know the simple things that you would already have known because you've flown it for a couple of years and several hundred hours."
But all those items will be addressed in a training plan that Mueck has instituted for those in the DC ARNG who will work with the new aircraft.
"We need to get into them with the pilots and the crewmembers and get our coordination going and get comfortable with the aircraft," Mueck said. "We want to make sure we do it as safe as possible with as much risk mitigation as we can prior to taking off."
The aircraft is designed to fit in specifically with the Guard's domestic missions and operations.
"The hoist gives us an excellent capability for assisting someone who may be trapped, for example, as in Hurricane Ike and Hurricane Katrina," Bellamy said. "We also help people who might be lost in the national parks and various mountainous areas where it's very difficult to get a ground vehicle in to rescue them."
And while the Hueys have hoist capabilities, the Lakota's hoist system offers other advantages.
"I think one of the best things is the external rescue hoist," Wagner said. "That's a big space saver inside the aircraft and I'm looking forward to doing some live hoist rescues with that."
Though even with the upgrades the Lakota offers, its fielding is bittersweet for those who have flown in Hueys for years.
"Getting the new aircraft means we're coming to the end of the old," said Wagner. "I'm an old Huey guy. I've been flying (in) Hueys for a long time. So, it's the end of an era and you can't help but have mixed feelings about it."
But there is one aspect that is specific to the Lakota.
Said Wagner, "The 72s are just off the factory, so they smell just like a brand new car."