By Charlie McCarthy
The Marine Corps declared that the new presidential helicopter fleet has an “initial operational capability,” Bloomberg reported.
Lieutenant General Mark Wise, deputy commandant for aviation, told Bloomberg that the designation, made in December without a public announcement, meant the Marines have enough trained pilots, maintenance staff, and equipment to support the $5 billion fleet of VH-92 choppers built by Lockheed Martin Corp.
The White House Military Office began its “commissioning” process and was evaluating when President Joe Biden can fly in the new helicopter.
The fleet of 23 helicopters were expected to be flying by late 2020. The Navy, the parent service of the Marines, has spent more than $1.5 billion on the program.
“[The Military Office] will make a recommendation for scenarios in which the VH-92A can be utilized for Presidential transportation” after completing its review, a National Security Council spokesperson told Bloomberg.
The helicopter is known as Marine One when the president is on board. The new fleet will carry the president, the vice president, foreign heads of state, and other official parties in the Washington, D.C., area and abroad.
Jay Stefany, the Navy’s acting assistant secretary for research and acquisition, said the helicopter “will probably start not with White House missions but other missions,” Bloomberg reported.
One remaining issue, which first surfaced in a 2018 test landing, concerned the helicopter’s tendency to burn the White House lawn when landing under certain circumstances. Wise said “good progress” had been made.
“We’ve been doing a series of tests to see what kinds of mitigating things we can do on the engineering side,” Wise said, Bloomberg reported.
“We’ve got our own sod farms” where “we go in and we look at grass, we do thermal tests, we do every due-diligence thing we can do to make sure that aircraft is meeting everyone’s” needs, Wise added.
Wise said the Marine Corps was confident that flaws with the helicopter’s communications system had been solved, as had other issues highlighted in a September 2021 report from the Pentagon’s operational test and evaluation office.
“We are building presidential aircraft that provide ease of maintenance while deployed and bring improved capabilities to the global vertical lift mission,” Lockheed said in a statement, Bloomberg reported.