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Nearing operation, new U.S. presidential helicopter still burns up the White House lawn

By Dan Parsons | June 9, 2020

Estimated reading time 5 minutes, 49 seconds.

Closing in on its 2021 entry to service as the U.S. presidential helicopter, the new Sikorsky VH-92 still has trouble landing at the White House without scorching the manicured lawn, according to a federal government watchdog report.

The U.S. Navy plans to purchase 23 VH-92As to replace the Marine Corps’ current fleet of VH-3D and VH-60N aircraft that fly the president, president’s entourage and other VIPs on short trips, typically around the Washington, D.C. region. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) first noted the issue with the aircraft damaging the White House lawn in 2018. Fixes have been identified that involve changes to the helicopter, landing procedures and/or the White House lawn, but might not be available as the aircraft enters initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E).

Sikorsky will begin deliveries of six VH-92A helicopters in 2021. The remaining production aircraft will be delivered in 2022 and 2023. Lockheed Martin Photo

“The program is pursuing options to achieve landing zone suitability that include possible changes in operational procedures, helicopter design, and lawn surface treatments. If design modifications are required, they will not be implemented until after IOT&E,” GAO said in its most recent report on the development program, published in April. “As a result, the Navy may not be able to fully demonstrate that the VH-92A helicopter meets all its key requirements until after the test program is complete.”

“IOT&E results may also identify additional issues that may require additional design or software changes,” the report continues. “Depending on the severity of the issues, the Navy may need additional time to test and incorporate changes into the helicopter, including those helicopters currently in production.”

The VH-92 is powered by a pair of 2,520-shaft horespower (1,879-kW) General Electric CT7-8A turboshaft engines, compared with the VH-3D’s twin 1,400-shp (1,000-kW) GE T58-GE-10 engines. NAVAIR officials have previously stated that under certain circumstances the exhaust from the more powerful engines, directed down by rotor wash, scorches the turf.

A spokesperson for Naval Air Systems Command, or NAVAIR, which oversees the presidential helicopter replacement program, said the program office is working with industry on material and non-material solutions to mitigate any risks regarding the landing zone suitability requirement. The plan is to complete this work before 2021 initial operational capability (IOC).

Sikorsky has developed a prototype design change to the helicopter’s auxiliary power unit to deflect exhaust, according to the GAO report. Flight testing of the prototype design change was conducted in March. Sikorsky also is conducting testing to determine if changes in helicopter and/or engine operating procedures can mitigate the risk of landing zone damage.

According to program officials, Sikorsky plans to have a solution for this performance requirement by November 2020. The VH-92A development program includes delivery of two Engineering Development Model (EDM) test aircraft and four System Demonstration Test Article (SDTA) aircraft, which are production representative.

The two EDM aircraft are currently undergoing government-led integrated testing at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, and were used to conduct an operational assessment in March 2019 to support a decision on whether to enter low-rate initial production. The four SDTA aircraft, now in the modification stages, are production representative aircraft being built under the development contract.

“There is no need for major reengineering,” the NAVAIR spokesperson told Vertical. “To date, testing and analysis of the solution has been positive and the program office has downgraded this risk. The program office is validating a solution to meet the presidential lift mission requirement. The program is performing test and evaluation of landing operations at various sites that have a landing zone surface that is representative of the White House South Lawn.”

Initial delivery of the first presidential helicopter is scheduled for fiscal year 2020 with production ending in fiscal year 2023. In April 2019, the Navy estimated that the VH-92A would cost about $4.9 billion to develop and produce and about $15.6 billion to operate and support the helicopters through fiscal year 2062. That $20.5 billion estimate reflects a 10 percent reduction from the program’s 2014 baseline estimate, the GAO report says.

The program office has mitigated or reduced risk on some technical issues found in prior reports related to helicopter start procedures, electromagnetic environment effects/electromagnetic pulse and cybersecurity. The Navy assessed these capabilities during earlier developmental test and during the operational assessment, which concluded in April 2019, before the Navy approved the program to enter production.

Limitations with the mission communications system still exist and upgraded software intended to address those limitations will be evaluated during IOT&E conducted through September.

“The results of that testing could impact the Navy’s planned January 2021 decision to begin using the helicopters as part of the presidential helicopter fleet,” the GAO report says.

None of GAO’s findings adversely affect the VH-92A’s development schedule, so the agency is not recommending any program modifications. It will “continue to monitor the potential cost growth and schedule delays as the program responds to challenges meeting capability requirements.”

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