Joe Biden’s first flight on the new presidential helicopter built by Lockheed Martin Corp. is being delayed after a report by the Pentagon’s testing unit warned that it’s not yet “operationally suitable” or sufficiently reliable — especially in an emergency.
The Biden administration hasn’t yet determined if the helicopter can be put into operation because it’s still assessing its safety, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be identified discussing the internal deliberations. The White House Military Office will determine the timeline.
The VH-92 helicopter program is a $5 billion, 23-aircraft program to replace the current aging fleet used by the president and other top officials. The previously unpublished testing report, dated Sept. 28, said the aircraft is “operationally effective” for routine “administrative” missions like a run to Camp David or delivering the president to Joint Base Andrews outside Washington for a preplanned trip on Air Force One.
But it wasn’t effective “for the contingency operation mission,” a reference to emergency flights. The “Mission Communication System (MCS) often delayed critical communications at the beginning of contingency missions and did not adequately support timely, continuous and secure communications,” the test office found.
The Naval Air Systems Command’s program office stamped the 28-page testing report “Controlled Unclassified Information,” a new label being used increasingly by the military services to restrict the public dissemination of program cost and performance data.
“The VH-92 report was marked CUI to protect critical technical information and operational security,” Captain Clay Doss, a Navy spokesman, said in a statement. “An unclassified/releasable synopsis will be included in” the Pentagon test office’s annual report, he said. That report is typically published in January.
With its emblematic “white top” paint job, Marine One — its designation when the president is on board — is almost as much a symbol of the American presidency as the Air Force One jetliner. Crowds of reporters and White House guests regularly gather to see the president depart and return aboard the helicopter. The current fleet entered duty in 1975, with a newer model added in 1989. Earlier plans for a replacement from Lockheed were canceled in 2009 after that program was plagued by soaring costs and schedule delays.
The Marines, in coordination with the White House Military Office, had planned to declare in July that the helicopter had an “Initial Operational Capability.” That already was a delay from June 2020 and then January. That designation would have been followed by the military office assigning missions. Neither has happened.
The Marine test squadron flew 18 sorties over 131 flight hours with scenarios inside and outside the National Capital Region, including to Camp David, to assess the chopper’s basic operational effectiveness and maintenance capability. Jessica Maxwell, a spokeswoman for the testing office, said in an email that the flight tests were designed to answer the question: Is it “effective and suitable to perform transport of the President, Vice President, cabinet members and heads of state?”
The test office declined to answer any questions about the results because they were deemed “controlled unclassified information,” Maxwell said.