New Presidential Helicopter Still Risks Scorching White House Lawn
(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden may have to wait months longer to ride on a new Marine One helicopter because the aircraft designed by Lockheed Martin Corp. continues to pose a risk of scorching the South Lawn of the White House.
The Marine Corps and company officials say they hope to identify potential solutions as soon as June to the unsightly problem of burned grass caused by spinning rotors and engine exhaust, which has bedeviled the chopper for two years.
Even with the flaw unresolved, the Navy has placed on contract all 23 of the planned Lockheed VH-92A helicopters -- known as Marine One when the president is on-board -- in a $5 billion program. The goal is to be ready to ferry Biden as soon as July.
But that timeline may depend on a fix for the problem of the charred lawn that first occurred in September 2018. Actual and potential landing zone damage “was found to be primarily due to engine exhaust, auxiliary power unit exhaust and discharge of aircraft fluids onto the grass,” the Pentagon testing office said in its latest annual report on major weapons systems, issued in January.
With its emblematic “white top” paint job, Marine One is almost as much of symbol of the American presidency as Air Force One. Crowds of reporters and White House guests often gather to see the president depart and return to his residence aboard the iconic helicopter.
But fielding a replacement for the current aging fleet of choppers -- first deployed in the 1970s -- hasn’t been easy. Lockheed was the contractor on the ill-fated VH-71 presidential helicopter project canceled in 2009 by Defense Secretary Robert Gates after what started out as a $6.1 billion project for as many as 28 copters grew to a projected $13 billion.
Although the lawn-scorching issue remains, the current program is under budget, Megan Wasel, a spokeswoman for the Naval Air Systems Command, said in a statement. The estimated cost is 5.6% less than projected in 2014, according to the Congressional Research Service.
So far, six of the helicopter have been delivered to the Marines, including two test choppers.
Operational testing began last month and is scheduled for completion in April. The tests are designed to determine whether the aircraft are operationally effective and can meet maintenance metrics.
The current evaluation is assessing “the full range of activities necessary to perform the presidential transport mission,” and testers “will note if the aircraft does any damage to the landing zones while performing operationally representative mission profiles,” Pentagon spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell said in an email Tuesday.
“We are making progress in addressing VH-92A landing zone mission requirements,” Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Melissa Chadwick said in a statement. “We continue to work closely with our customer to ensure the aircraft meets all operational requirements.”
But Wasel, the Naval Air Systems spokeswoman, said that “under hot day environmental conditions, a risk remains of damaging a grass surface from heat from the engines with rotors turning.” The Navy and Lockheed Martin are developing “concepts to reduce rotors-turning exhaust damage” and anticipate identifying “potential solutions” as soon as June, Wasel said.
The Navy enlisted the Johns Hopkins University Advanced Propulsion Lab to help figure out the conditions in which a lawn landing will cause damage, she said.
An “exhaust deflector” for the helicopter’s auxiliary power unit has “demonstrated significant reduction of exhaust” hitting the ground when rotors are static but engines are running, reducing the risk of “grass landing zone damage,” Wasel said. Operational techniques and procedures also “have been optimized to further reduce the risk,” she said.
The Marines hope to declare by July that the helicopter possesses an initial combat capability. Asked if the chopper would go into operation even if the lawn-burn issue remained unresolved, Wasel said there will be a plan to address any issue not corrected at that point. And, she added, “the White House Military Office will determine specific timing for the VH-92A to begin performing the executive transport mission.”
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