By STEVEN NALLEY
Jay Johnston can testify firsthand to the power of the UH-72A Lakota Light Utility Helicopterâ€™s camera, and itâ€™s just one of the helicopterâ€™s defining features.
Johnston, director of American Eurocopterâ€™s flight operations training team in Huntsville, Ala., said the camera is an L-3 Wescam MX-15i with an infrared sensor and a 100-power spot scope. In laymanâ€™s terms, he said these technical details translate to knowing the difference between a Ford and a Chevrolet.
â€śI have actually used this system,â€ť Johnston said. â€śI was at almost 10,000 feet, 12.8 miles from a refinery, and I could tell you Ford from Chevy sitting at the refinery from almost 13 miles away.â€ť
On Thursday, American Eurocopter in Columbus celebrated delivery of its 200th Lakota to the U.S. Army.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant was one of several government, military and business luminaries in the audience with the staff of American Eurocopter, a division of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS). Bryant said he was proud of the U.S. Army using the Lakotas and the American Eurocopter staff who manufacture them.
â€śI just (met with) the National Governorâ€™s Association,â€ť Bryant said. â€śThey realize Mississippians work. Weâ€™re (have a) great training ground in our community colleges, and they do the job. Mississippi works, and the world is beginning to find that out.â€ť
Sean Oâ€™Keefe, EADS North America chairman and CEO, said this milestone has been six years in the making, with Lakota production beginning in 2006. He said American Eurocopter finished its first 100 Lakotas in 2010, so the production rate has accelerated.
Oâ€™Keefe said the Lakotaâ€™s other key features include a 30 million-candle-power search light capable of lighting up an entire city block and a video downlink system which can stream the onboard cameraâ€™s footage to recipients up to five miles away. He said he was grateful to everyone at American Eurocopter who made the Lakota program possible.
â€śThis is one of the best places in the world to do business,â€ť Oâ€™Keefe said. â€śThis aircraft is so successful and so high-performance that it is now selling itself. There are a lot of people who are interested in learning more about it, and as a consequence the opportunities are starting to line up. Also ... thereâ€™s a number of different national militaries around the globe that have seen the performance of this helicopter, seen how really affordable it is as well as how versatile it is and are interested too.â€ť
One feature Johnston said the Lakota does not have is weaponry, but Oâ€™Keefe said the military market is developing interest in an armed aerial scout variation of the Lakota to replace aging combat helicopters which currently protect U.S. Army ground forces. He said such opportunities and the Columbus employeesâ€™ strong efforts will maintain American Eurocopterâ€™s success despite looming cuts to military budgets.
â€śWe do it on time, and we do it at the cost we say weâ€™re going to do it,â€ť Oâ€™Keefe said. â€śThat impresses anybody with the United States government any time you can say you do those two things (and also) produce an asset of this caliber. It doesnâ€™t matter how tight the environment is ... (or) how much more budgets are squeezed. If you meet the objective and you can accomplish that task, there is an interest in coming back, because everyone knows thatâ€™s a good bet.â€ť
Bryant said he, too, has hope for continued military industry growth, and he wants this growth to happen in Mississippi.
â€śThere are some (military vehicles) in service that are 50 years old,â€ť Bryant said. Theyâ€™re going to have to be replaced, so this is a growing industry. We have a foothold in it; weâ€™re going to lead it.â€ť
Maj. Gen. Tim Crosby, program executive officer of aviation in the U.S. Army, said he acknowledges America is in a financial crisis. While the army has made no official decisions to reduce purchases, he said itâ€™s not necessarily realistic to expect budgets to grow, but this does not mean there is no room for new military technologies like the Lakota.
â€śWe realize weâ€™ve got to take an appetite suppressant,â€ť Crosby said. â€śIf we increase (purchases) here, I donâ€™t see us putting more money into the aviation budget, so weâ€™re going to have to give up something somewhere else. Weâ€™re going to have to do a cost-benefit analysis, and when I say costs, itâ€™s not just dollars. Itâ€™s performance. So if we buy more of these (Lakotas), whatâ€™s it going to allow us to do more efficiently than we were doing with someone else?â€ť