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The Presidential Helicopter: A $4 Billion Mistake

Wherever the President of the United States goes, he travels in expensive, well-armed style. We’ve covered a few of these modes of transport in this channel, including Air Force One and The Beast, the presidential motorcar. Today we’re going to talk about one that never came to fruition— the presidential helicopter. Now, the President has a fleet of helicopters that he can use regularly, but the current fleet is old, and the replacement, which we’re going to talk about today, was a dramatic failure. It’s called the Lockheed Martin VH-71 Kestrel, and it was a costly mistake.

Marine One

Marine One is the call sign of any United States Marine Corps aircraft carrying the President of the United States, usually denoting a helicopter. The first president to travel by helicopter was Dwight Eisenhower in 1957. Eisenhower was looking for a quick and convenient way to travel to his summer home in Pennsylvania, which, shocker, didn’t have an airfield with a paved runway. He procured a Bell UH-13J Sioux (pronounced Soo) chopper for his first flight but instructed his staff to find a suitable long-term option. They came up with the Sikorsky UH-34 Seahorse, which became the standard for the next few years. It was replaced in 1958 with an H-13, and again in 1961 by the VH-3A.

Over the decades, helicopter travel became most President’s preferred method for trips within several hundred miles, as shutting down Washington DC traffic for a motorcade became more impractical. The White House’s South Lawn has been used for takeoff ever since. New copters were added to the fleet, including the VH-3D in ’78 and the VH-60N in ’87, with all aircraft regularly updated for safety and efficiency.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, it became clear to all parties involved that the Marine One fleet needed an overhaul. The years of updates had meant increased weight without similar increases to their power, leading to a fleet of overweight, under capable helicopters. In April of 2002, the Department of Defense initiated the VXX program, which placed the Navy’s Marine Corps in charge of designing and contracting the new fleet by 2011. With this new directive, work began to find replacements for the fleet of choppers that had carried the President for the last several decades.

VXX 

VXX, which is officially referred to as the Presidential Helicopter Replacement Program, set the goal to have the first new chopper ready by 2008. So, in late 2003, with a secretive list of requirements, the Navy issued a request for proposals for the supply of 23 helicopters. The only manufacturers to follow-up on the RFP were Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky, the company that had built the previous fleet.

It’s unclear precisely what this RFP contained. However, congressional briefings revealed that the copter would be 20 meters (64 feet) long and would need to carry at least 14 passengers. It would include radar jamming devices, encrypted telecommunications systems, and even electronic systems that could withstand a nuclear electromagnetic pulse. Lockheed Martin won the contract in 2005, and their new design was designated the VH-71 Kestrel. By this time, though, the project was already behind schedule. The first five aircraft were expected for delivery by 2010, but these would be much less sophisticated than the end product. In fact, they would only be used for five years after completion, until the fleet of 23 was completed in 2015. However, even before the contract was awarded to Lockheed Martin, the project was already steeped in controversy.

Sikorsky was in something of an authoritative position, having manufactured all of the previous presidential helicopters. More importantly, Sikorsky was able to construct every component of the chopper within the United States. On the other hand, Lockheed Martin would partner with two foreign companies, Rolls-Royce and Agusta-Westland, requiring that some parts be built in the United Kingdom. Of course, given that the end product would be used to carry the President, this idea of manufacturing partly overseas became controversial. Sikorsky’s President took the opportunity to lambast Lockheed in the most American way possible, saying, “What is a socialist country and a socialist company going to teach us about competition?”

This protest was enough to cause the Navy to delay their decision for almost a full year, playing a vital role in the eventual delay. The truth of the matter was that 65% of the VH-71’s parts would be built in the United States, and any other components would be built by the country’s closest ally, the UK. So, the Lockheed Martin team was granted 1.7 billion dollars in funding, and work began.

Problems and Delays

While the program was delayed before it began, the delays and cost increases did not stop there. By 2007, the project cost had increased by an estimated 40 percent, bringing the expected total expense over 4 billion dollars. The first prototype rolled out that year, completing a test flight in Yeovil, England, with all signs indicating that the project was going well. The copter was 6.5 meters (21.7 feet) tall with an 18.5 meter (61 feet) rotor diameter. The maximum range outstripped the requirement, coming in at 1,389 km (863 mi) with a max speed of 309 km/h (192 mph). However, less than a year later, the 2007 budget estimate would seem laughably small, with projected costs reaching 11.2 billion, averaging over 400 million dollars per helicopter.

Officials from the Navy were shocked at this number. After all, 400 million was more than the cost of Air Force One. Finger-pointing began immediately, with the Navy claiming that the manufacturers had shown a lack of ability to meet requirements by predetermined deadlines. Lockheed responded by pointing out that the project’s needs had changed entirely over the past few years. In fact, their team claimed that the Navy had imposed 1,900 new requirements since the project had begun. Navy officials responded by saying that they hadn’t made a single additional request.

A 2011 Government Accountability Office report would determine that the Navy was primarily responsible for the project’s issues for three main reasons. Despite taking several years to choose a manufacturer to award the contract to, a complete review of the system’s requirements wasn’t made until four months after production started. Only then was it discovered that the VH-71’s design could not meet the program’s needs. Because of that delay, they were forced to ask for modifications after production had already started, forcing Lockheed to make substantial changes to completed aircraft. Plus, because it was the Navy, they wanted this chopper excessively equipped for combat. These new requirements led to an almost entirely new helicopter, which the team began to refer to as the Increment II, while the first iteration was the Increment I.

Of course, by the time this report was completed, the project was already doomed. Barack Obama’s election victory in 2008 included promises to reduce unnecessary government spending, and a 12 billion dollar helicopter fleet didn’t seem to mesh well with that message. Clearly, the Marine One fleet needed an upgrade, but the massive bill just wouldn’t do.

A New Plan

president barack obama
President Barack Obama is photographed during a presidential portrait sitting for an official photo in the Oval Office, Dec. 6, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

By 2009, the project’s total cost was already over 4 billion dollars, with an additional 2 billion in the remaining budget. By this time, Lockheed had already completed nine VH-71s, five of which were airworthy. In search of a path forward, the Congressional Research Service presented the Obama administration with four choices. 

The first was to continue the VH-71 program by completing the 23 Increment 2 choppers. The additional estimated cost was 10 billion dollars and an entry into service date in 2019. Option 2 was to restructure the program to provide 23 of the increment one helicopters at an additional cost of 6.4 billion, which would be operational by 2012. Option 3 was a restructure to provide 19 Increment I aircraft to replace the current fleet; the additional cost for this option was estimated at 5.6 billion with entry into service by 2012. Finally, the fourth option was to upgrade and extend the current fleet at the cost of 1.4 billion.

President Obama settled on option four, upgrading the existing fleet with the remaining appropriated budget. However, it quickly became apparent that this decision wasn’t quite as financially friendly as it had first appeared.

First of all, many of the upgraded copters would only last another decade or so, even with maintenance and upgrades, meaning that another new helicopter program would need to begin immediately. After all, within two years of Obama’s decision, the oldest of the Marine One choppers would turn 50 years old. Also, the completed VH-71s, which cost 4 billion dollars to develop, were sold off to Canada for 164 million. This deal included the five airworthy choppers, the four completed fuselages, and thousands of spare parts, all of which Canada paid for at pennies on the dollar.

Despite all of the VXX program’s problems, all signs indicated that the VH-71, especially the Increment 2, was a competent aircraft. With the pressing need for new helicopters, many government officials believed that the VH-71 project would eventually restart, but that was never the case. Instead of continuing what they had started, it seemed that the only option was to start over.

Moving Forward

Within a year after the VH-71 contract was canceled, the Navy restarted the VXX program from the beginning. The first goal was to clearly define the program requirements right from the start, which the team could do relatively quickly, based on their failed experience with the VH-71. The Navy asked for input from manufacturers about how to best proceed with the requirements and received feedback from a handful of companies, already showing a considerable improvement over the first set of requirements, which had only garnered interest from two manufacturers. 

However, this time, the competitive outlook was quite different. The company Sikorsky, which had been extremely critical of Lockheed’s partnerships with foreign countries, had actually been recently acquired by Lockheed. This Sikorsky-Lockheed pairing seemed most prepared to build the next Marine One fleet, and they were chosen for the contract.

The decision was made to use Sikorsky’s S-92 as the base aircraft for the fleet, altering the design to meet the Navy’s requirements. In 2014, it was announced that the entire fleet of 21 presidential helicopters would be complete by 2023. It’s unclear just how large the budget is for this project, but the first phase of the process, which would result in six choppers, included a 1.24 billion dollar appropriation. Seven early-stage versions were completed in 2017, though they have not been integrated into the fleet yet. Altogether, this new project’s costs combined with the sunk costs of the previous project will likely place total expenditures somewhere in the range of 14 to 21 billion dollars.

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