Now they must convince the Army — and Congress — to come up with the money.
Recently completed testing of the EADS aircraft, a militarized version of the UH-72 Lakota utility helicopter built by Grand Prairie-based American Eurocopter, showed that it could outperform the Army’s existing Bell Helicopter-built OH-58D models, said David Haines, vice president of Rotorcraft Programs for EADS North America.
Just as importantly, the new war birds could be bought and operated for the same cost or less as upgrading the OH-58 fleet, which dates to the 1970s.
Haines said that EADS recently took its prototype helicopter to the Army’s high altitude training and testing range in Alamosa, Colo., where it performed well in the thin mountain air that is not conducive to helicopters.
“This aircraft thrives in that environment,” Haines said, saying it could hover at 14,000 feet, climb and maneuver at 14,000 feet when operating nearly fully loaded and demonstrated single-engine (one engine inoperative) capabilities at 9,000 feet.
The Army isn’t actually shopping for a new helicopter. But it has spent considerable effort in recent months researching alternatives.
It would take Congressional action and a major budget commitment to buy a new aircraft, whereas even major upgrades can be funded through ongoing budgets.
Last May, Army Major Gen. Tom Crosby told an industry group in Fort Worth he wasn’t optimistic the service can buy a new helicopter. “As much as I want and need a new armed scout, it’s unaffordable,” he said.
Both Bell and Fort Worth startup AVX Aircraft Co. are counting on that being the case. "We are confident that it is more cost-effective to upgrade an existing platform than to develop a new platform," said Greg Hubbard, a spokesman for Bell.
AVX has proposed a much more aggressive OH-58D upgrade that the company says can be done for as little as $2 million an aircraft because it uses the existing engines.
“As we’ve said many times, we can upgrade the OH-58 to give it the desired capability at the lowest possible cost,” said AVX spokesman Mike Cox. “No one else can touch us.”
- Bob Cox