Airforce One may be the flashiest plane in the US presidential hangar, but that doesn't mean the day-to-day runabout gets neglected. The US Navy has announced that Sikorsky Aircraft has been awarded the contract to replace the Marine One helicopter fleet used to transport the President. The initial US$1.24 billion contract is for six S-92 helicopters and two trainer simulators for the US Marine Corps as part of a development and conversion program that will see a fleet of 21 aircraft built for presidential use by 2023.
Marine One is the call sign of the helicopter used by the US President for getting from place to place quickly and securely. It’s usually a VH-3D Sea King or a VH-60N WhiteHawk, but these date back to the 1960s and 1980s, and after the 9/11 attacks were regarded as obsolete.
The previous attempt to replace the Marine One fleet was a competition between Sikorsky and a Lockheed Martin / Agustawestland partnership. Lockheed won the contract to build the replacement helicopter, called the VH-71 Kestrel, but the cost of the 28-helicopter fleet skyrocketed from US$6.1 billion to $13 billion before being cancelled by the Obama administration in 2009.
The new helicopter, dubbed the VH92, is based on the dual-engine, medium-lift S-92, of which Sikorsky has delivered over 200 to customers in ten countries since 2004. Applying lessons learned from the previous replacement program, Sikorsky was required to submit a proposal based on an existing, in-production helicopter in its bid, which will be fully evaluated before production begins. The six aircraft to be delivered by 2018 will be used to test the flight performance and mission communications of the S-92, with four going on to operational status. Meanwhile, the simulators will be used to train pilots and flight crews.
If all goes according to schedule, the first batch of production aircraft will be ordered with the final deliveries by 2023. Assembly of the helicopters will be at Sikorsky’s S-92 production facility in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. These will then be sent to a secure facility in Stratford, Connecticut, for modifications before going on to another facility to install the integrated communications and mission systems, then back to Stratford to install the presidential interior complete with in-flight toilets.
Exactly what the VH92 will be like is highly classified, but industry opinion about the previous replacement program indicates that it will have greater range than existing Marine One helicopters, and carry up to 14 passengers and thousands of pounds of cargo. It will also be specially hardened against electromagnetic pulses, carry encrypted communications and video conferencing gear, and be able to jam radar and deploy countermeasures against anti-aircraft missiles, though the combat and communications capabilities may be scaled back to control costs.