Sikorsky's VH-92 Marches Towards Its Goal Of Flying The President As 'Marine One' in 2020
Hurdles still lie ahead, but the program seems to be making progress towards its goal of replacing all 11 VH-3Ds and 8 VH-60Ns by 2023.
Recently, I have received a large number of inquiries from readers asking about what is going on with the VH-92 presidential helicopter program. It has been over a year since we last checked in about the next generation 'Marine One' that had just made its first flight. Since then, the program has been moving ahead and although risks remain that are concerning some, the program has been moving through development quite smoothly.
Sikorsky posted a video of the VH-92 in testing last Spring, providing our first glimpses of its configuration. Check it out below:
This VH-92 looks a lot like an ordinary S-92 Helibus, aside from a few aerials maybe. The biggest difference on this aircraft are the three ventral fairings for the helicopter's AN/AAQ-24 Nemesis based Directional Infrared Countermeasures (DIRCM) system. You can read all about DIRCM here and here, but the laser-based infrared-guided missile blinding system serves as the backbone of the defensive countermeasure suite on Air Force One, Marine One, and a wide array of American and allied military aircraft today.
Clearly, this test VH-92 lacks key components, including satellite communications and the missile approach warning sensors that cue the DIRCM system, but still, it's great to see the final VH-92 configuration beginning to take shape in a flying form.
Sikorsky also flies an aircraft it calls its VH-92 demonstrator—seen below in pictures from a Northrop Grumman event. It's not clear how close this aircraft is to the final VH-92 configuration, but it does sport an HMX-1-like color scheme and appears to have a broadband satellite communications systems installed, with its array being situated above the rear section of its fuselage, just before its tail boom.
We still don't know exactly what the VH-92's interior will look like. You can see exactly what HMX-1's fleet of 11 VH-3Ds and 8 VH-60Ns, which the VH-92s are set to replace, look like on the inside in this previous piece of mine. The S-92 has amazing potential when it comes to VIP interiors. The wide, long, and tall cabin offers more of a long-range private jet feel than that of the cramped confines that most helicopters offer. Multiple room layouts are common, with a wide variety of seating options.
A very talented 3D designer, Keith Peters of Kp3-D, who does a lot of rendering work for Sikorsky, delivered the renderings below to the company, according to his company website. It's not perfectly clear if they reflect the final interior configuration of for productions VH-92s, but they are quite reminiscent of the interior of Donald Trump's personal Boeing 757 jet.
Trump does know helicopters, having operated a helicopter airline for a period of time and he has owned a small fleet of S-76s for decades for personal and corporate transport purposes. With this in mind, it wouldn't be surprising if Trump has given some form of input on the design, especially as he certainly has done so with the upcoming Air Force One replacement aircraft.
As of April 2018, the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) said it expected to wrap up the VH-92's development phase, which began in 2014, sometime in the middle of 2019. After that, it would assess whether the helicopter is ready to enter production, starting with an initial batch of six aircraft. The Navy began the project after President Barack Obama ordered then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to terminate the previous VH-71 program in the face of "requirement creep" and massively escalating costs, which you can read about in more detail here.
The service has already received more than $1.2 billion to develop the new VH-92A and is set to get another nearly $900 million to spend on the project in the Fiscal Year 2019 budget. Around $245 million will support continued developmental work, while the remaining funds are for the procurement of actual low rate production helicopters.
At present, the U.S. Navy plans to buy 23 VH-92As. A total of 21 of which will go to the Marine Corps' Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1), where they will replace the existing VH-3D and VH-60N helicopters in the "white top" presidential airlift fleet responsible for providing "Marine One" aircraft to fly the president, his family, and closest advisors around at home and abroad. Four of these Marine VH-92As will be dedicated training aircraft.
The last two aircraft will remain with NAVAIR for continued testing purposes. This will help with the integration of improved and updated systems in the future, which could include upgraded communications and self-protection systems.
“We’re not going to make any changes while in development. But with all aircraft, changes need to be made for obsolescence or new capability," U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Eric Ropella, the VH-92A program manager, told Rotor and Wing International magazine in April 2018. "One example I’ll give is the safety/situational awareness upgrade to add another MFD [multi-function display] to the cockpit. Right now the baseline S-92 comes with four … there’s two on the pilot and co-pilot sides, this one would be in the center."
That same month, however, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that raised concerns about the VH-92A program's progress. In spite of a new cost estimate at that time that showed the Navy had actually found ways to save $123 million on the project, there were concerns that there were still pending changes that could potentially require significant modification to the helicopter's design.
"To date, there have been minimal design changes that required modifications," GAO's investigators wrote. "Some of the modifications included the addition of formation lights, wireless antennas, and design changes to radios needed for wideband line of sight capability."
The program office was also looking into changing the style of the forward door to improve the view for individuals entering and exiting the helicopter and therefore make it safer for them to do so. NAVAIR and Sikorsky, now a division of Lockheed Martin, had also not yet been able to find a way to prevent the force from the rotor blades from the destroying the grass and other plants on the White House's South Lawn, which currently serves as the main helipad there.
The GAO report states:
"The lawn is a highly visible, size-constrained landing zone where damage to the White House grounds needs to be minimized. Currently, however, the program is not meeting a key system capability requirement to land the aircraft without adversely affecting the landing zone (including the White House Lawn)."
More importantly, there was work still to be done to ensure features on the helicopter to harden it against an electromagnetic pulse associated with a nuclear blast work as intended. There were still tweaks necessary to the aircraft's propulsion system, as well. All of this raised questions about the accuracy of the lower cost estimate.
"The items cited by the Government Accountability Office have been resolved or are being addressed by Sikorsky and will not impact on-time delivery of fully capable VH-92A helicopters to our customer," Lockheed Martin told Breaking Defense in a statement in May 2018. "Sikorsky design will meet all program requirements and we have been executing to an accelerated schedule."
If everything goes to plan, the Marines expect HMX-1 will begin transitioning to the VH-92As in 2019 and that this process will be complete by the end of 2022, according to their official aviation plan for 2018. The service expects to reach initial operational capability with the helicopter in 2020.
To further support the initial phases of the transition process, in February 2018, NAVAIR hired private contractor PHI, Inc. to supply a single commercial Sikorsky S-92A to support pilot and aircrew proficiency training at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland to support the VH-92A program. Spotters have since seen that helicopter, sporting PHI's highly visible black-and-yellow paint scheme flying in the greater Washington, D.C. area and near the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia where HMX-1 is situated.
The Navy's lease on this aircraft lasts for one year, with the helicopter flying approximately 30 hours each month for a total of 360 flight hours in total. The service has the option to extend this deal for up to another five months. PHI also happens to be the parent company of firm operating shadowy gray S-92s for another, unknown arm of the U.S. government.
So there you have it, a snapshot of where the presidential helicopter replacement program is at and where it's headed. Hopefully, when the time comes, the USMC and the White House will introduce their new helicopter with a bit more fanfare than how the new presidential limousine was introduced a couple weeks ago.
But limousines come and go, a new Marine One helicopter comes only once in a generation and the VH-92 has some big boots fill considering the VH-3 has flown the President safely for over half a century. For the S-92 program, not only does VH-92 mean the type will fly the most powerful person in the world around, but it also means the type is finally entering service with the U.S. military—a reality that could result in other orders to satisfy other mission sets down the line.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com