Military News

Washington National Guard gets new helicopter for first time in five decades

After 38 years in the Washington National Guard, 1st Sgt. Brett Jensen received something new for a change.

The citizen soldier belongs to an aviation battalion that’s receiving brand-new helicopters for the first time in five decades. It means the local unit will be able to retire aircraft dating to the Vietnam War era.

“It’s kind of nice being able to see new aircraft in the fleet,” said Jensen, 56, a Tacoma resident who has deployed twice to the Middle East and participated in domestic missions ranging from the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980 to the more recent disaster of Hurricane Katrina.

His company in the 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment is receiving six new UH-72 Lakota helicopters to beef up its resources for stateside emergencies such as landslides and wildfires. The Lakota aircraft are replacing OH-58 Kiowa helicopters.

The battalion took possession of the first Lakota two weeks ago. The bird had just 17 hours in the air when a guardsman brought it from Texas to the Evergreen State.

Since then, pilot Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jay Enders has been racking up hours on it.

“This has been a lot of fun,” said Enders, 47, a Spokane resident who recently returned from a deployment flying medical evacuations in Afghanistan.

Enders said the Lakota is the first helicopter assigned to him that’s equipped with modern avionics as well as technology that will let him stream live information from the air to commanders on the ground. Even the helicopters he flew in Afghanistan tended to date from the 1980s, he said.

“It’s a huge event for us to have something new,” he said.

The Washington National Guard has the Army’s third-oldest fleet of Blackhawk helicopters and its oldest Chinook helicopter.

That Chinook, built in 1952, was parked Tuesday on the tarmac at Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s Gray Army Air Field, a couple hundred yards from the Lakota.

“That is most assuredly a museum piece in a couple years,” battalion Commander Reuben Hokanson of Bonney Lake said as he gestured to the Chinook.

The Army began buying Lakotas in 2006 from defense manufacturer Airbus at a cost of about $6 million each. The Army now has more than 280 of them.

The eight-seat Lakota is larger than the four-seat Kiowa aircraft it’s replacing. It will be used primarily for search-and-rescue missions, as well as to help the National Guard gather information to shape disaster responses.

It’s not large enough for the firefighting loads that the National Guard’s Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters sometimes carry.

The National Guard plans to station the new helicopters at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane while keeping its Blackhawks and Chinooks at JBLM.

Hokanson said the battalion is in line to get new Chinooks in the next couple years.

“It’s finally our time,” he said.