New era at Whiting Field
With the ground breaking for a temporary hangar, work is moving forward on
the permanent Leonardo maintenance shop at Whiting Aviation Park as
new era begins.
An instructor pilot who has been at the controls of the new Navy helicopter trainer
might have put it best about the dawning of a new era of training.
The new Leonardo TH-73A is a “huge upgrade” from the current Bell TH-57, Lt.
Cmdr. Andrew Laberge wrote in an e-mail.
“Imagine driving a 30-year-old compact car for most of your life, and then finally
getting that brand new, top-of-the-line SUV,” he said. “It is bigger, faster, and, most
importantly, more capable.”
The new helicopter alone is reason to call this a new era for training at Naval Air
Station Whiting Field. But there’s more: The Navy’s choice of Leonardo also was
significant for the long-sought Whiting Aviation Park. That park’s anchor tenant will
be a 100,000-square-foot Leonardo maintenance facility, but even before that a
temporary plant will be built at a nearby airport, which in itself will be used to lure
other aviation-related operations when Leonardo moves into its permanent digs.
Long time coming
It’s taken Santa Rosa County nearly two decades to see its vision come to fruition.
“Actually, it’s been 18 years,” said County Commissioner Don Salter, who has been
instrumental in the development of the park and has been counting.
The county’s long-range plan was to establish Whiting Aviation Park adjacent to
NAS Whiting’s South Field, north of Milton, where some 15,000 Navy, Marine, Coast
Guard, and allied students learn to fly each year.
Airbus, Bell, and Leonardo bid to build helicopters to replace the TH-57 (first
procured in 1968). The winner was Leonardo of Italy, an aerospace, defense and
security company with U.S. operations headquartered in Arlington, Va., and an
AgustaWestland plant in Philadelphia.
Sundown for the TH-57 will begin in fiscal year 2022 and conclude in FY-24. The
new TH-73A trainer is being built at AgustaWestland’s plant.
The plan is for 32 of those helicopters, and its Advanced Helicopter Training
System (AHTS), to reach Initial Operational Capability in mid-2021 at Naval Air
Station Whiting Field.
IPs train in Philadelphia
Commander Training Wing 5 (CWT-5) at Whiting Field will have sent 25 instructor-
pilots (IPs) to Philadelphia by the end of the year to undergo flight training with Lot 1
of the helicopter, according Lt. Michelle Tucker, public affairs at the Chief of Naval Air
Training in Texas.
One of those IPs is Laberge, who is assigned to CTW-5 and an AHTS flight
“The TH-57 was sufficient to make basic helicopter pilots,” he said, “but the
capability was lacking in … basic war-fighting skills.” The TH-57 was a “little behind
Whiting students and instructor pilots were “basically going back in time” to fly the
TH-57 and coming back to the present to train on their fleet aircraft, said Laberge.
The TH-57 was “great for that raw stick-and-rudder training, but the TH-73A has the
right balance between technology and capability to meet the demands of the fleet
now and in the future."
The TH-73A brings modern avionics, with integrated flight management systems;
enhanced night-vision training capability, including an infrared (IR) searchlight, IR
position lights and formation lighting; and “greater performance in both speed and
power margins” comparable to fleet aircraft.
The combination of these capabilities opens a door for enhanced training
opportunities that will ensure fleet replacement squadrons can spend less time on
foundational skills and focus on the mission requirements for today’s multi-service
Leonardo will be the anchor tenant in the 269-acre Whiting Aviation Park. Plans are
to build a 100,000-square-foot aviation center. The company will employ up to 50
workers, said Erica Grancagnolo, associate director of the Santa Rosa Economic
The aviation park is expected to attract a mixture of aviation-related activities, and
possibly non-aviation operations, including manufacturing, according to Salter. But
MRO operations will be the primary activity.
After Leonardo said it would build the maintenance facility near Whiting Field should
it win the award and committed $25 million to the project, the county was then able to
go to the Triumph Gulf Coast to seek funding.
Triumph, which oversees funding obtained as a result of the 2010 oil spill, provided
$8.5 million for Phase 1 infrastructure. The county kicked in $3 million. When the
contract was awarded, utility work, including the main road to the park, was able to
get under way.
In mid-July, Space Florida, the state’s aerospace economic development agency,
approved development and execution of agreements for $35 million in financing and
lease arrangements with AgustaWestland. That includes $20 million for the hangar
and support facility and $15 million in equipment and tooling.
Santa Rosa County also has three Florida First certified industrial parks: Santa
Rosa Industrial Park East, Blackwater Industrial Park, and Northwest Florida Industrial
Park at Interstate 10.
Aviation is also possible at those site. There are two tenants “ready to go” at the I-
10 site, Salter said. At Park East, there are “three prospects about to commit, and
one of them is a manufacturer of aircraft components.”
Salter has been the county’s lead in preventing encroachment of NAS Whiting Field’
s mission by encircling the base through rezoning, including parcels that were below
the flight paths of fixed-wing aircraft out of Whiting. Santa Rosa County has also
outright purchased parcels and with state funding assistance.
Those efforts over the decades have earned the county accolades from the Navy,
including best-business practices to emulate on how to protect a Navy base’s mission.
But, it took seven years of negotiations to get the Navy to sign off on a “first of its
kind” Limited-Access Use Agreement that gives tenants of Whiting Aviation Park
access to the South Field runway, said Salter. It allows for up to 75 operations by
civilian/business aircraft per day with access to two active bi-directional runways at
NAS Whiting Field.
Before Whiting Aviation Park is completed, and with the first aircraft due in months,
the county is in the midst of constructing a 10,000 square foot temporary space for
Leonardo representatives and their initial supplies at the Peter Prince Airport,
located three miles east of Milton.
Santa Rosa County officials in early August broke ground for a new hangar facility
at Peter Prince Airport that will be the temporary home for Leonardo.
In April, county commissioners gave the go-ahead for design and engineering of the
hangar, warehouse, and modular office complex. Construction is expected to begin in
AgustaWestland Philadelphia Corp., doing business as Leonardo Helicopters, is
under contract with the Navy to deliver and maintain up to 130 training helicopters
that will be used at Naval Air Station Whiting Field. The company will become the first
tenant of the new Whiting Aviation Park and construct a larger facility there. The
interim hangar at Peter Prince Airport will then be used to incentivize other, similar
companies to locate operations in Milton.
“It’s taken a long time to get where we are,” Salter sighed, “and now, we’re seeing it
- Rod Duren
First military helicopters
On Sept. 14, 1939, the VS-300, the world's first practical helicopter, took flight at
Stratford, Conn. Designed by Igor Sikorsky and built by the Vought-Sikorsky Aircraft
Division of the United Aircraft Corp., it was the first single main rotor and tail rotor
A Russian emigrant, Sikorsky was the inventor of this type of helicopter, now
developed into the VS-316. The U.S. Army Air corps accepted the new XR-4 on May
In 1943 Sikorsky’s R-4 became the first helicopter to go into mass production,
producing 131 R-4 variables between 1942-1944. It was also the first helicopter in U.
S. military service and the first to operate from a ship’s deck.
After a few modifications, the helicopter became the YR-4B and on April 25, 1944 it
became the first helicopter to fly in combat with the U.S. Army Air Force 1st Air
Commando Group in Burma. Pilot Lt. Carter Harmon used the YB-R4 to rescue four
airmen behind enemy lines in Burma.2
The Navy bought four improved Sikorsky aircraft in 1942 for evaluation but soon
handed the responsibility for helicopter development and pilot training to the Coast
Guard. The Navy resumed its own helicopter programs Dec. 28, 1945, forming
Experimental Squadron 3 (VX-3). Pilots and support personnel from that unit staffed
Helicopter Utility squadrons HU-1 and HU-2 as training and fleet support squadrons.3
The Army helicopters initially deployed to Korea were the Bell H-13 Sioux and the
Hiller H-23 Raven, the first in a long line of Army helicopters named for Native
American tribes. Among the early missions were utility, wire laying, liaison, and
reconnaissance missions. In January 1951, four helicopter detachments were
assigned to the 8th U.S. Army surgeon, and on the third day of that month, 1st Lt.
Willis G. Shawn and 1st Lt. Joseph L. Bowler flew the first Army aerial medical
evacuation (MEDEVAC) missions. Dubbed the "Angel of Mercy" by soldiers on the
battlefront, the aviators used the H-13 to transport 18,000 of the war's total 23,000
casualties to forward deployed mobile Army surgical hospitals. The H-13 Sioux
helicopter became familiar to American television audiences years later when it was
shown in the background title shot of the "M*A*S*H" series, which aired from 1972 to
The United States first used this new concept of warfare, soon named “air mobility,”
during the early years of its involvement in the Vietnam conflict, the first helicopter
Of the more than 12,000 helicopters operating in Vietnam, more than 5,000 were
destroyed by combat or accidents. Helicopters were used in more than 850,000
medical evacuation missions conducted during that war, and were responsible for
boosting survival rates for the wounded to as high as 99 percent, according to the
Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association. The group sponsored the Vietnam Helicopter
Pilot and Crewmember Monument at Arlington National Cemetery. The granite
monument bears an engraving that depicts the UH-1 Huey aircraft, which was used
by all branches in Vietnam.6
- Ted Kordecki, research associate
5 Vietnam War Magazine