‘Marine One’ replacement frequenting Washington, D.C., skies

Avatar for Dan ParsonsBy Dan Parsons | December 4, 2020

Estimated reading time 4 minutes, 26 seconds.

The VH-92 Presidential Helicopter has been making near-regular flights around the Washington, D.C., area of late, most recently on Dec. 4 when it was spotted flying south along the Potomac River. 

Still in test, the Sikorsky-built VH-92A flew its first public sortie on July 4, 2019, during President Trump’s Independence Day extravaganza on the National Mall. It was first spotted performing test landings on the White House lawn in 2018 and has been an occasional presence in the skies over D.C. since then. 

https://twitter.com/SharkParsons/status/1334908257291350017

But helicopter spotters, including Vertical, have seen the aircraft multiple times in the last two weeks, suggesting an uptick in shakedown flights between the city and the VH-92’s current base at Naval Air Station Patuxent River south of the city in Maryland. The helicopter is a highly-modified and militarized version of Sikorsky’s commercial S-92. 

“The VH-92A aircraft are conducting both training and test flights throughout the Nation’s Capital region,” a spokesperson for Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) told Vertical in an email. 

It is possible the flights are aimed at testing whether the helicopter’s engine exhaust, combined with its powerful downwash, continues to burn up the lush White House lawn. In prior trials landing at the executive mansion, the VH-92’s 2,520-shaft horespower (1,879-kW) General Electric CT7-8A turboshaft engines scorched the manicured ground to an unacceptable degree. A solution for this performance requirement was supposed to be in place by November, but NAVAIR did not specify what tests were recently performed.

Several VH-92s are in flight test at Pax River, as the base is commonly called. They are not authorized to carry the president yet, but should eventually replace the current fleet of VH-3D Sea Kings, which serve as “Marine One” when the president is aboard, and VH-60N White Hawks, both made by Sikorsky.

President Elect Joe Biden will likely be the first president to call the VH-92 Marine One, and the aircraft are in initial operational test and evaluation, a process to determine whether the aircraft is suitable for the mission, which is scheduled to conclude in mid-2021. Initial operational capability (IOC) — U.S. military speak for “ready for service” — is scheduled for late fiscal year 2021, which ends Sept. 30, 2021.

Ultimately, “the VH-92A will enter service post IOC at the determination of the White House Military Office,” according to NAVAIR. 

Sikorsky, which is owned by Lockheed Martin, is cleared to build six VH-92s under a $542 million low-rate production Navy contract awarded in May. Those aircraft will be delivered to the Marine Corps between 2021 and 2023. Marine Corps plans call for a fleet of 23 VH-92s, including 17 production helicopters — four for training and two test aircraft.

The final version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act funds five “VH-92A Executive Helos” at $589 million of an initial Defense Department request of $610 million. Plans are to eventually buy 23 VH-92s to be operated by the Marine Corps’ Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1). That includes 17 production helicopters, four for training and two test articles.

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