Sure, I’m an aviation geek, but I tend to be an airplane guy as opposed to a helicopter person.
I once almost crashed my car (and several others) on the New Jersey Turnpike when I saw the An-225 Mirya — currently the world’s largest plane — coming in for a landing at Newark Airport. I consider one of my life’s regrets never having been able to travel aboard the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, my all-time favorite airliner.
My first AOL Instant Messenger screen name was FlyBraniffIntl, a reference to the colorful and profligate Texas-based carrier which went out of business long before I could ever fly on it. You may be surprised to learn I wasn’t voted “Most Popular” in the high school yearbook.
Yet, when it comes to presidential transports, I’d argue the Marine One helicopter is far more iconic than Air Force One.
As a matter of objective fact, I’m fully aware this is wrong. Most Americans — and, indeed, a fair portion of the rest of the world — can identify the presidential plane, developed from the 747-200.
Ask them what Marine One is and odds are at least 30 percent will say it’s a Gerard Butler movie. Odds are, however, they’ve seen more of Marine One than they have of Air Force One, though.
Think about it. In the first scene of “All the President’s Men,” archival footage shows President Nixon arriving on Capitol Hill aboard Marine One after a summit in Moscow. Two years later, Nixon boarded a military helicopter — no longer officially Marine One, since he’d resigned the presidency that morning — on the South Lawn of the White House.
In a bit of footage burned into our national consciousness, he waved to the crowd, went through the door and left our country’s political life for good. Beat that, Air Force One.
Beyond that, think about the hours of footage of presidents boarding and disembarking from Marine One on the White House lawn as reporters spray them with questions. You don’t quite get that same experience as the commander in chief climbs the stairs of a massive 747 out at Joint Base Andrews.
Thus, I’m geeking out a bit over the fact President Biden is about to get a new helicopter as Marine One, with the Lockheed VH-92A replacing the venerable Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King. (Were there only a different president traveling aboard it, but I digress.)
Now, if you’re not an aviation geek and everything I’ve said over the last five paragraphs has sounded a bit like Charlie Brown’s teachers to you, that’s probably not going to be what you’re concerned about. In fact, you’re probably wondering why you’re here.
Well, it seems the new Marine One has a slight problem with burning the finely manicured lawn at the presidential manse.
“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,” Bloomberg reported Friday.
“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.”
So yeah, that’s an issue.
The problem was first identified in 2018, traced to the powerful engine on the new chopper. A January report from the Pentagon found the damage “was found to be primarily due to engine exhaust, auxiliary power unit exhaust and discharge of aircraft fluids onto the grass.”
Getting a replacement for Marine One has already been a teeth-pulling process. Keep in mind presidential transports tend to be a slightly older craft, given they have to be retrofitted with all sorts of other equipment to harden them against the possibility of an attack.
You can’t just go scuttling all of that work when a newer plane comes out. (The 747-200 that Air Force One is based off of, for instance, has been retired by every U.S. airline, passenger or cargo.)
Even by that standard, however, the Marine One fleet is way overdue to be replaced. The SH-3 Sea King was originally introduced in 1959 and the Marine One variant, the VH-3, dates from 1961. The design, in other words, is significantly older than the vice president. The current fleet, according to Bloomberg, dates from the 1970s, which is when I believe the vice president was listening to Tupac.
After 9/11, modernizing the Marine One fleet became a priority; according to We Are the Mighty, the replacement program began in 2003 but hit serious turbulence when the first candidate, Lockheed Martin’s VH-71 Kestrel, was scrapped in 2009 because of massive cost overruns.
Given that, maybe re-sodding the lawn might be a cheaper alternative.
“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,” Bloomberg reported. “The estimated cost is 5.6% less than projected in 2014, according to the Congressional Research Service.”
The issue, Wasel said, is that “under hot day environmental conditions, a risk remains of damaging a grass surface from heat from the engines with rotors turning.”
The Navy is working with the Johns Hopkins University Advanced Propulsion Lab figure out the conditions that cause scorching and is working on “concepts to reduce rotors-turning exhaust damage”
“We are making progress in addressing VH-92A landing zone mission requirements,” said Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Melissa Chadwick. “We continue to work closely with our customer to ensure the aircraft meets all operational requirements.”
Unfortunately, this means it’ll be a while until we see the VH-92 on the White House lawn. We’re expected to see the Marines certify the initial combat capability of the helicopter in July, although it’s unclear when it’ll be transporting the president.
Wasel said “the White House Military Office will determine specific timing for the VH-92A to begin performing the executive transport mission.”
Whatever the case, it’ll be in plenty of time for Joe Biden to wave goodbye to everyone, just like Richard Nixon, and leave the White House and Washington for good.
The question is, what version of Air Force One will he be flying? That aging 747-200-based model is also on its way out, to be replaced by an Air Force One based on the much newer 747-8i, according to Business Insider.
That plane won’t be ready until at least 2024, although you know how often these projects can be delayed — perhaps even until 2025. It certainly won’t drag on until 2028 or 2029, I imagine.
Fingers crossed, then, that Joe Biden waves goodbye and boards the Lockheed VH-92 for the flight to Joint Base Andrews.
My fingers remain crossed it doesn’t scorch the White House lawn. When he’s there, however, it would be nice if his final flight is on the 747-200 as opposed to the 747-8i.
I mean this from purely aviation geek perspective, of course. Who wouldn’t want to go out on a classic plane like the current Air Force One? Why stick around to fly on that newfangled 747-8i, anyway? Let some Republican try it out.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.