First published August 28, 2011 – theredlens.com
How urgent is the need to replace the current fleet of Presidential helicopters? The large Sikorsky VH-3D white tops have flown the President since 1976 and the smaller VH-60N white tops have been in service since the 1980’s.
After Sept. 11, 2001, there became a greater need to secure the President and in 2002, members of the Bush Administration and the Department of the Navy issued a Request for Proposal for a new generation of helicopters. By the time the acquisitions process and training finished, replacing the current fleet would be necessary, sometime around 2012-2020. In 2003, the process to secure new helicopters for the Presidential support fleet formally began, under the name VXX. Major requirements for the new helicopter would be better protection, communication and amenities
Lockheed Martin/AgustaWestland’s VH-71 and Sikorsky’s VH-92 were the two aircraft being considered for the contract. Lockheed Martin bought and renamed AgustaWestland’s European EH-101 helicopter – a joint venture between Italian and British companies. Sikorsky unveiled the VH-92, an already internationally successful helicopter that Sikorsky employee Matthew Haverluk says was “presented with the best features of the H-3 and H-60 models in mind”.
Lockheed Martin’s VH-71 won the bid in 2005 and began testing the first planes in Patuxent River, Maryland. Staff Sargent Kenny Deal, Marine Corps crew chief, was in charge of developing curriculum and training incoming crew chiefs on the new VH-71 helicopters. Deal explained that Lockheed Martin came to the table willing to fulfill the Operational Requirements Document (ORD) set forth by the Department of Defense and NAVAIR, more than Sikorsky. There were a lot of requirements too; Deal had to memorize the ORD. “They thought of everything,” Deal said, “from having the door be a certain height for the President to walk out of the plane in a dignified way, to making sure the engines weren’t so powerful that they knock over trees planted by former Presidents on the White House lawn.”
Working on acquisitions and development of the VH-71, Deal pointed out many problems found with the new helicopter model. Since Lockheed Martin had never built a helicopter before, the VH-71 would be supported by AgustaWestland and manufactured in England. Measurements would be metric, creating an added cost of replacing all the squadron’s tooling; this would be the only American military aircraft not using U.S. standard measurements. Another concern was in shipping the aircraft or parts to the United States. Anyone who came in contact with the helicopters would need a “Yankee White” security clearance, to include those in customs. Expediting parts would take longer than they do now. Sikorsky support is in Connecticut and parts arrive from the factory in one day.
“ORD requirements kept getting added,” Deal said, and the planes were “getting to heavy to actually be able to take off. They could take off one of the three fuel tanks, but that would reduce the distance the plane could fly.” Funding and support for the new fleet was quickly exceeding expected costs
When Barack Obama took office, he faced questions on the overspending of taxpayer dollars for this contract. During a closing session of his fiscal responsibility summit, Senator McCain questioned Obama about the $11 billion already spent on the new helicopters:
Video source: Youtube
In early 2009, President Obama felt the current fleet was suitable and asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to look into the VH-71 program.
The cost for the initial planes had gone from $1.7 billion to $3.2 billion. In April 2009 those, like Deal, working in Patuxent River, MD were turned away from the VH-71 hangar and in June 2009, the U.S. Navy formally terminated the contract.
The U.S. Navy has invested $500 million to support the current fleet for now and in 2008 HMX-1 developed a Sikorsky Maintenance Team to ensure the aircraft’s safety after required flight hours. Haverluk, leader of the HMX-1 Maintenance Team, explains: “Years of stress makes old metal brittle and it will crack. No matter how well you take care of it, it’s going to fall apart eventually.” The team, composed of expert mechanics and artisan airframers, gives HMX-1 the ability to care for their aircraft on site.
February 2010 reintroduced a Request for Information for VXX contract proposals. Sikorsky is back in the running with their VH-92 and, in a surprising twist, is teaming with Lockheed Martin’s support. Boeing may be offering an American-built version of the EH-101 (VH-71), transferring all intellectual property to the U.S.A. in order to produce the aircraft on American soil – an important element for the new fleet. Boeing also has the option of submitting their CH-47 Chinook or the V-22 Osprey for Presidential support. Fortunately for Sikorsky, their S-92 model has proven to fly further and faster and cost less than the EH-101.
Important to understand is that the current fleet is not yet unserviceable; however, it is not cost-effective to continue to support the aging helicopters. The Navy has the task of finding a new helicopter to fulfill the President’s needs while taking into consideration taxpayer expense. In the meantime, the expertise and care surrounding the current fleet has ensured the comfort of the President with an impeccable record of safety and excellence for over 54 years.