Marine One upgrade: The next presidential helicopter fleet is getting closer to its debut

Key Points
  • The newest helicopters just got one step closer to serving the U.S. president as Marine One.
  • In 2014, the U.S. Navy awarded Sikorsky $1.24 billion to develop the next presidential helicopter fleet.
  • A total of 23 helicopters will replace the aging 19 aircraft that currently transport the president.
An artist rendering of the VH-92A aircraft.
Sikorsky photo

The aging presidential helicopter fleet just got closer to its much-needed $1 billion-plus upgrade, as test models are now on track for government testing this year.

"We just completely installed the interior this week, and so those two test aircraft will get to the government this year for testing," Sikorsky program director Spencer Elani said Monday during a briefing at the Sea-Air-Space conference, the largest maritime expo in the United States.

The latest step is a "key milestone," Elani said. The test helicopters would not be able to undergo advanced test flights without an interior.

The first of the six new helicopters for the fleet is slated to enter service in 2020, and production of all the aircraft is expected to finish in 2023.

The current fleet is composed of 19 helicopters, the oldest of which were built around 1975 — making them older than President Donald Trump's grown children.

Sikorsky, a unit of Lockheed Martin, is under contract to deliver the next set of helicopters, which are referred to by their military designation, VH-92A, and are known as Marine One when the president rides in them.

Much like their sister aircraft, Air Force One, little is known about Marine One helicopters and the pilots tasked to fly them.

"It's carpeted, and there are 12 seats for the president and other passengers," Elani told CNBC when asked to share more details.

The helicopters, dubbed "white tops" for their signature paint job, are flown by pilots from the Marine Helicopter Squadron One, better known as HMX-1 or "Nighthawks."

They are equipped with ballistic armor, secure communication lines to the White House and Pentagon, and antimissile defenses.

"It's also very quiet, so much so that you can have a conversation," Elani said, noting that the helicopter is "a smooth and comfortable ride."

The current fleet and what's next

An artist rendering of the VH-92A aircraft.
Sikorsky photo

Currently, there are two helicopter models in the presidential fleet, the VH-3D Sea King and the slightly smaller VH-60N White Hawk.

There are 11 Sea Kings and eight White Hawks, which are disassembled and transported by military cargo plane to serve the president on foreign travel.

In 2014, the U.S. Navy awarded Sikorsky $1.24 billion to develop six presidential helicopters.

Having already manufactured every presidential chopper since President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration, Sikorsky was playing on its home court.

While the first six VH-92A aircraft are in development, Sikorsky wants to build 23 helicopters. The 17 remainder aircraft are slated to replace the 19 choppers that currently ferry the president from the White House lawn to Joint Base Andrews, Camp David and beyond.

The Navy is slated to wrap up negotiations on the remaining presidential helicopter fleet this year, said Marine Corps Col. Eric Ropella, the VH-92A program manager.

"We were in the run phase, I would say last year," Ropella said. "So now we are in the sprint phase."

He said the next award will most likely occur before fiscal year 2020. Payment for the remaining 17 aircraft is expected to span over a period of three years.

Meanwhile, a group of sequestered pilots from the Marine Corps HMX-1 squadron will test the aircraft on behalf of the government to verify its operational standards.

And those who live in the Washington metropolitan area may catch a glimpse of Marine One helicopters as flight tests take place at the nearby Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland.