It’s well-known that the United States President is regularly transported around the country in a helicopter. “Marine One”, the helicopter designation when the president is flying a helicopter, has become a symbol of the office. It’s almost as famous as “Air Force One”, typically used when the President flies aboard any fixed-wing aircraft of the U.S. Air Force.
How Many Helicopters Does the President of the United States Use?
Typically, the U.S. President will fly in a group of anywhere between two to six identical helicopters. Flying with multiple helicopters in formation allows for security personnel, aides, and guests to accompany the President and disguise which helicopter actually contains the President.
The primary helicopter used by the president at the time of writing is a VH-3D “Sea King”, an older model that joined the fleet in the late 1970s. On occasion, or when heads of state, foreign guests, or when transporting the Vice-President, the VH-60N “White Hawk” is used. This has been the model also used by the Commander-in-Chief since 1989.
The current Presidential fleet consists of 11 VH-3D and eight VH-60N helicopters.
In 2014, Connecticut-based company Sikorsky Aircraft, owned by Lockheed Martin Corp, was awarded a contract to build the next generation of presidential aircraft – known as the VH-92 model.
The VH-92 program intended to build 23 new helicopters to replace the current fleeting of VH-60N and VH-3Ds. This included 21 operational helicopters, with two others to be used for testing. The program to build these Presidential helicopters had a mission to provide ‘safe, reliable, and timely transportation for the President, Vice President, Foreign Heads of State, and other official parties…’
Despite being declared operational by the U.S. Marine Corps on 28 December 2021, the Pentagon testing office published that the new helicopter is “failing to meet the reliability, availability or maintainability threshold requirements” set for it. This was especially the case in an emergency.
This appears to be because engineers have struggled to build the necessary ‘Mission Communication System’ (MCS) required for the VH-92. The Presidential helicopters require a very secure degree of connectivity so that the President can communicate in circumstances where immediate decisions are required, but at this time the systems onboard are not up to standard and are still in development.
During President Trump’s administration, an issue with the VH-92 arose while trying land on the white house lawn. The hot gases to the engine exhaust downwash was resulting in a browning of the lawn grass. Design changes to exhaust deflectors, landing procedure and chemical coating for the lawn are also under development.
When travelling oversees, not only does the Presidential Limo ‘The Beast’ make the journey but also the fleet of Presidential helicopters. Using U.S. Airforce C-17 Gloebmasters, the Presidential fleet gets packed up and shipped ahead of the Presidents arrival if rotary transportation is required.
Aircraft, personnel and maintenance equipment are sent ahead to a remote and secured part of a military airbase where the helicopters are unpacked, serviced and readied for the Presidents arrival. Upon completion of the trip the crews of HMX-1 pack it all back on board the C-17’s and either head to the next location of back to Quantico.
If the President is planning multiple stops where the helicopters cannot beat the President to their next location additional crews, helicopters and personnel will be scheduled to play a game of hop-scotch so there is always a HMX-1 crew waiting the the Presidents arrival.
Why Does the President Fly with Multiple Helicopters?
The President normally flies with various decoy helicopters as a protective measure. The helicopters will change positions and adjust their routes to defy would-be attackers. On approach to land, all the helicopters will make the approach and at the last minute, only the Presidential helicopter will land.
This method of flight is known as the ‘Presidential Shell Game’. This technique is used to disguise the president’s exact whereabouts and confuse potential adversaries. By using decoys the odds of an attack on the exact helicopter the President is in is reduced. The concern that the president would be attacked reached a new height after the 9/11 attacks on various U.S. landmarks.
The helicopters in the Marine One fleet are equipped with impressive military technology in case they need to use it. This includes anti-missile countermeasures, flares, and chaff. Each countermeasure is designed to work against specific ground-to-air or air-to-air threats.
All the flight crews are current Marine Corps pilots with extensive flight time in active operations.
Who Flies the Presidential Helicopters?
Presidential helicopters are flown by pilots from the Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1). They not only fly the President, but also the Vice President, other heads of state, officials of the Department of Defense, and other VIPs as directed by the White House Military Office.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first U.S. President to have been flown by HMX-1 in 1957. He had been away on vacation but was urgently required back in the White House. In order to return, he would have needed to have been driven by a motorcade (a trip that would have taken two hours). So he approved the use of a helicopter and was back in the White House in seven minutes.
From that moment the decision to use helicopters as a transportation method for the President was born and to oversee this task HMX-1 was assembled. Over 800 Marines supervise the Marine One fleet of 19 helicopters which is based in Quantico, Virginia.
Not only does HMX-1 provide the pilots, but they also maintain the aircraft and look after all the logistics involved with any helicopter flight of the HMX-1 fleet.
What Does it Take to Become a Pilot for HMX-1?
Crews of HMX-1 rigorously train for the operation because the task of flying the President is one that must not be undertaken without failure.
Pilots must have served as a helicopter pilot within the Marine Corps for at least 2 years and although there are no minimum flight hour requirements, pilots must show experience in various types of flight missions (Exact details are classified).
In addition to flying experience, personality and professionalism each candidate must be able to pass a Yankee White background check before proceeding onto final selection for the Presidential helicopters. ‘Yankee White’ is a name for a highly in-depth background check undertaken for Defense personnel working with the President and Vice President.
Candiates will then be sent to a selection board where only the top candidates will be selected for HMX-1 flight crews.
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