White House military office reviews new presidential helicopter
Bloomberg May 5, 2022
The White House Military Office is evaluating when President Joe Biden can fly for the first time in the new presidential helicopter — and what missions it’s ready to perform — after years of delay.
The office began its “commissioning” process after the Marine Corps declared that the $5 billion fleet of VH-92 choppers built by Lockheed Martin Corp., which was supposed to be flying by late 2020, has an “initial operational capability.”
That designation, made in December without a public announcement, means the Marines have enough trained pilots, maintenance staff and support equipment — “things we need to operate the aircraft” — Lt. Gen. Mark Wise, deputy commandant for aviation, said in an interview. Now it’s up to the White House to commission the aircraft into service.
A National Security Council spokesperson said in a statement that the Military Office “will make a recommendation for scenarios in which the VH-92A can be utilized for Presidential transportation” after completing its review.
With its emblematic “white top” paint job, Marine One — its designation when the president is on board — is almost as much a symbol of the American presidency as the Air Force One jetliner. The new fleet of 23 helicopters will carry the president, the vice president, foreign heads of state and other official parties in the Washington area and abroad.
Jay Stefany, the Navy’s acting assistant secretary for research and acquisition, said in an interview that the helicopter “will probably start not with White House missions but other missions.”
Among the questions not yet resolved: the helicopter’s tendency to scorch the White House lawn when landing under certain circumstances. It’s a problem that first surfaced during a test landing in September 2018.
“We’ve been doing a series of tests to see what kinds of mitigating things we can do on the engineering side,” Wise said. The results of one test will be reported in June “and then there be other milestones after that to check progress,” Wise said, adding that “we are making pretty good progress” on the scorching problem.
“We’ve got our own sod farms” where “we go in and we look at grass, we do thermal tests, we do every due-diligence thing we can do to make sure that aircraft is meeting everyone’s” needs, he said.
In the meantime, Wise said, the Marine Corps is confident that it has solved flaws with the helicopter’s communications system and other woes highlighted in a September 2021 report from the Pentagon’s operational test and evaluation office.
“We are building presidential aircraft that provide ease of maintenance while deployed and bring improved capabilities to the global vertical lift mission,” Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed said in a statement.
The Navy, the parent service of the Marines, has so far spent more than $1.5 billion on the program. It placed all 23 planned helicopters under contract before last year’s combat testing.
In a September report that wasn’t released publicly, the Defense Department’s testing office said the VH-92 is “operationally effective” for routine “administrative” missions, like taking the president to the Camp David retreat in Maryland or to catch a planned flight on Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington.
But it wasn’t effective “for the contingency operation mission,” a reference to emergency flights, the testing office said. It said the “Mission Communication System,” for example, “often delayed critical communications at the beginning of contingency missions and did not adequately support timely, continuous and secure communications.”
The office said engine exhaust during last year’s test “caused landing zone damage that limits the number” of locations from which the Marine squadron can operate.
Wise said that report was based on “fairly old” data. The Marines “have actually corrected the vast majority” of the cited flaws and “made huge progress in that platform. It’s tracking very nicely. The White House is very pleased with the progress. We’re doing very well. The aircraft systems themselves were performing brilliantly.”
Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs contributed to this report.