California National Guard's new helicopter fleet to aid disaster, border, anti-drug missions

04/06/2012 12:00 AM

04/08/2012 1:28 PM

California has a new, high-tech tool to fight forest fires, find lost or missing persons and derail drug cartels' efforts to grow and transport illegal substances in the state.

Eight new UH-72 Lakota helicopters are set to replace the aging 0H-58 Kiowa models used for civil support efforts starting this month. The federal government purchased the birds for $5.5 million each from Eurocopter. The California National Guard will use them to assist federal, state and local agencies in a variety of missions, including natural disaster response, law enforcement and border security efforts.

Officials say the new birds are lighter, more mobile and feature many more technological bells and whistles than the older models. They touted those tools, including infrared sensors, GPS mapping and video cameras that provide close-up pictures, at a Thursday showcase at the Army Aviation Support Facility at Mather Field.

A live video feed showing people walking across the West Steps of the Capitol building, shot from a Lakota hovering in the air above, streamed during a press briefing.

"It's almost like going from Stone Age to Space Age," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Daniel Lowry, a pilot who works with the Stockton Police Department by day.

Lowry, who has been trained to use the Lakota, said the new capabilities will make tasks like tracking down marijuana growers, trailing vehicles or spotting missing persons much easier.

"Whatever could be asked of us, that equipment is just amazing what it will do," he said. "It's endless."

Emergency and law enforcement officials also welcomed access to the new tool. John Sutton, who works with 13 northeastern California counties as an assistant chief for the California Emergency Management Agency, said the Lakota looks like it will be a "phenomenal" asset in a time of budget cuts at the state and local level.

He said replacing the old helicopters with the new equipment now "ensures we'll have 10 to 20 years of additional resources."

In addition to spotlighting the skills of the new fleet, California National Guard officials used the morning showcase to bid a formal farewell to the Kiowas, which have been used for civil support since 1988. Chief Warrant Officer 4 Rick Lynn, one of the last Vietnam-era pilots still flying helicopters for the Guard, was tapped to pilot the Kiowa's final flight. He plans to retire this summer.

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