US President Joe Biden’s first flight on the new presidential helicopter built by Lockheed Martin Corp is delayed after a report from the Pentagon’s testing unit warned that it was not yet “operationally suitable” or sufficiently reliable – especially in an emergency.
The Biden administration has not yet decided whether the helicopter can be put into operation because it is still assessing its safety, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be identified and discussed the internal considerations. The White House Military Office will determine the timeline.
The helicopter “does not meet the requirements for reliability, availability or maintenance capability” set for it, according to an internal summary prepared for senior defense officers by the Pentagon Test Office and obtained by Bloomberg News.
The VH-92 helicopter program is a $ 5 billion 23-plane program to replace the current aging fleet used by the president and other top officials. The previously unpublished test report, dated September 28, said the plane is “operationally efficient” for routine “administrative” missions such as running to Camp David or handing over the president to Joint Base Andrews outside Washington for a pre-scheduled flight on Air Force One .
But it was not effective “for the emergency operation”, a reference to emergency flights. “The Mission Communication System (MCS) often delayed critical communication at the beginning of emergency missions and did not adequately support timely, continuous and secure communication,” the test office found.
The Naval Air Systems Command’s program office stamped the 28-page test report “Controlled Unclassified Information”, a new label increasingly used by military services to limit the public dissemination of program costs and performance data.
“The VH-92 report was labeled CUI to protect critical technical information and operational safety,” said Captain Clay Doss, a spokesman for the Navy, in a statement. “An unclassified / released synopsis will be included in the Pentagon’s annual report,” he said. That report is typically published in January.
With its emblematic “white top” paint, Marine One – its designation when the president is on board – is almost as much a symbol of the US presidency as the Air Force One jetliner. Lots of journalists and guests from the White House gather regularly to watch the president leave and return aboard the helicopter. The current fleet went into operation in 1975, with a newer model added in 1989. Earlier plans for a replacement from Lockheed were canceled in 2009 after the program was plagued by soaring costs and delays in the schedule.
The Marines, in coordination with the White House Military Office, had planned to declare in July that the helicopter had an “Initial Operational Capability.” It was already a delay from June 2020 and then January. That designation would have been followed by the military office assigning missions. None of the parts have happened.
The Pentagon’s Director of Operational Testing and Evaluation assessed the helicopter’s performance during a three-month test that ended on April 15. Marine Corps Major General Gregory Masiello, the host, told a Navy audience on August 3 that “the squadron and program are ready today.”
The Marine Test Squadron flew 18 torts over 131 flight hours with scenarios in and outside the capital region, including to Camp David, to assess the helicopter’s basic operational efficiency and maintenance capability. Jessica Maxwell, a spokeswoman for the test office, said in an email that the flight tests were designed to answer the question: Is it “efficient and suitable for carrying out the transportation of the president, vice president, cabinet members and heads of state?”
The test office declined to answer questions about the results because they were considered “controlled unclassified information,” Maxwell said.
Mission Communications System “instability, interior faults in the cabin, frequent maintenance inspections, and rear stairwell door components contributed to low aircraft availability,” the test office concluded. The lack of a “communication system diagnostic function” at squadron level “and the time required to access” communication system components “hampered the squadron’s ability to maintain the aircraft,” it said.
In addition, the VH-92 program office has still not resolved the issue of the new helicopter potentially burning the grass in the landing zone on the White House’s southern lawn. Spinning rotors and engine exhaust cause scorching under limited circumstances, which only occurred in September 2018.
“Engine exhaust and fluid discharge cause limitations in the landing zone, which limits the number of available landing zones,” according to the summary. Marines should “continue to reduce the effects of engine exhaust and fluid discharges.”
Megan Wasel, a spokeswoman for the program office, said it “continues to work closely” with the Navy and the White House Military Office “to make a smooth transition from the current in-use” copter to the VH-92. Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed has received the test report, Wasel said.
“The report did not raise any issues” that the program office and the Marine Corps “were unaware of or the issues have been rectified in the past,” said Major Jorge Hernandez, spokesman for the Navy Deputy Commander. The office “can not speculate on when” the White House will give approval to start missions, he said.
John Dorrian, a spokesman for Lockheed’s Sikorsky Aircraft Division, said “we are delighted that our customer has awarded us a contract for the last five production helicopters” in February. He said, “Sikorsky continues to work closely with our customer to ensure that the aircraft meets all operational requirements.”
The Navy placed the last batch of a total of 23 production and test aircraft on contract on February 5, three days before operational testing began. The service has already spent more than $ 1.5 billion on the program.
(With the exception of the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)