The helicopter chosen to carry the nation’s chief executive
meets civil aviation safety requirements, but it will require modifications
to satisfy more stringent military specifications, asserted officials
at the Navy program office managing the effort.
for the presidential helicopter replacement was heated. The Lockheed
Martin/Agusta Westland US101, now called VH-71A, beat out a version
of the Sikorsky S-92. Lockheed Martin’s team includes AgustaWestland
(aircraft design), Bell Helicopter (aircraft assembly) and General
The US101 had been certified to civil standards before the current
requirements—including overall crashworthiness, resistance
to bird strikes and turbine burst protection—were introduced.
According to the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), certification
requirements for new Navy and Marine aircraft are generally tougher
than even the most modern civil safety standards. NAVAIR is a self-certifying
agency and officials say they are now formulating criteria that
should test the US101 to the agency’s current standards.
Even though the US101 was chosen to meet an accelerated delivery
schedule, testing to these criteria can take months to years, mentioned
helicopter industry sources.
Citing security concerns, NAVAIR has adopted a policy of not publicly
discussing vulnerabilities of the aircraft. However, how much “beefing-up”
the US101 structure needs will determine the ultimate cost and risk
of a program on a tight schedule.
NAVAIR accelerated the expected delivery of the initial four presidential
helicopters from fiscal year 2013 to 2009, and full operational
capability with 23 helicopters is slated for 2014. To meet this
rushed schedule, Lockheed Martin and the Navy expect that the first
variant of the VH-71A largely will be an off-the-shelf EH101 with
upgraded engines and protective equipment, such as missile warning
detectors and infrared countermeasures.
Future improvements will include more efficient main rotor blades,
a revised tail rotor, more powerful engines, an up-rated transmission
and a second cabin display. NAVAIR also expects the upgraded airframe
to achieve a 10,000-hour service life, matching today’s VH-60N
Once in service with Marine Squadron HMX-1, the new helicopter
must give the president safe and timely transportation with “office-in-the-sky”
capability. “That’s a flying communications center,
not just a taxi cab,” explained NAVAIR program manager Doug
Isleib. “The VIPs on board must have connectivity and command
capability anywhere we take them.”
Yet despite the emphasis on safety and high-tech systems, NAVAIR
based 60 percent of the US101’s technical score on helicopter
cabin volume, according to the Congressional Research Service. The
manufacturer’s brochures show the US101 cabin to be 1 foot,
5 inches wider and 3 feet longer than the basic S-92. Sikorsky lengthened
The wider EH101 was designed to withstand 15 g’s (gravity
forces) vertical impacts without major cabin deformation, according
to Agusta Westland.
However, current standards specify higher crash loads with vertical,
longitudinal, and lateral components.
Stephen Moss, president of Agusta Westland, insists the basic EH101
designed in the early 1980s meets all current safety criteria. Pat
Deward, Lockheed Martin’s US101 program manager, says the
aircraft is close to modern requirements, and adds, “We’ll
do exactly what NAVAIR wants us to do.”
Deward said the US101 will be an all-aluminum airframe. The basic
EH101 structure is currently constructed with approximately 15 percent
composite materials, but Lockheed Martin now plans to substitute
aluminum to address crashworthiness and other requirements.
One former helicopter industry executive speculates that the redesign
will require heavier frames throughout the US101 structure, and
a new round of ground testing before the first presidential helicopter
flies. Based on the helicopter industry’s track record, that
process could take three years or more.
The urgency attached to the program made the schedule a key concern
for NAVAIR. Lockheed Martin and Agusta Westland delivered the sophisticated
EH101 anti-submarine warfare helicopter to the British Royal Navy
five years late and 1.16 billion British pounds over budget, according
to a U.K. national audit office report.
Ironically, the Sikorsky S-92 that failed to win the contract already
features pioneering safety innovations now required of all new rotorcraft.
In 2002, it became the first helicopter civil certified under new
federal airworthiness regulations.
By comparison, the EH101 was certified in 1994, when fewer regulations
were in effect.
The National Aeronautics Association recognized the S-92 for its
safety, performance, and efficiency with its 2002 Collier Trophy.
“It was the innovations among the safety aspects that made
it stand out among the other candidates,” NAA vice chairman
Skip Ringo recalled.
Lockheed maintains that changes to the EH101 will not delay the
new Marine One. Stephen Ramsey, executive vice president for helicopter
systems at Lockheed Martin, is quick to point out that the US101
now gives the U.S. government a mature air vehicle, already proven
in service with the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, Italian Navy, Canadian
Forces and Portuguese Air Force.
But some safety issues remain unresolved. A UK Merlin crash in
March 2004 grounded the British and Canadian fleets and focused
attention on cracks in the tail rotor hub. Lockheed Martin says
it is working with the U.K. Ministry of Defense fixing the tail
rotor problem. As of April 2005, Canadian maintenance officers could
not explain the accelerated wear in other flight-critical components.
Again, to meet the aggressive schedule, Lockheed Martin officials
said Agusta Westland will build four US101 pilot production aircraft
in Yeovil, in the United Kingdom. Rotor blades, transmissions and
other critical parts will be made in Italy and Britain.
Bell helicopter will assemble the fifth and subsequent aircraft
in Amarillo, Texas. Presidential communications and protection systems
will be integrated at the Lockheed Martin facilities in Owego, N.Y.
NAVAIR will not comment on the security risks inherent in manufacturing
US101 components offshore, but says only the plan is in compliance
with Federal Acquisition Regulations and the Procurement Integrity
Navy officials say plans are underway to build a government-owned,
contractor-operated presidential helicopter facility at Patuxent
River, Md., so the aircraft need never be returned to an overseas
factory for overhaul or modification.
The mixed fleet of VH-3D and VH-60N helicopters that currently
supports the presidential mission includes 30-year old aircraft
that were designed in the 1960s.
Lockheed Martin was awarded a $1.7 billion contract for the VH-71A’s
system development and demonstration phase. Engine tests on a contractor
vehicle began in December 2004. Additional evaluations will begin
at Owego with the first test aircraft, which arrived in June. Flight
tests will transition to Patuxent River in 2006.
The program, worth nearly $6 billion, covers 23 VH-71 operational
aircraft and three test aircraft at an expected cost of approximately
$82 million per aircraft (Increment One) and approximately $110
million per aircraft in the final configuration. The VH-71A carries
components provided by more than 200 suppliers in 41 states.