The first production model of a new generation of Marine One U.S. Presidential helicopters made its initial flight earlier today at AgustaWestland’s plant in Yeovil, England. Designated by the U.S. Navy as VH-71, the helicopter is based on the three-engine AW101. The first block of five helicopters is scheduled to begin entering service next year. The Navy has been test flying four prototype block one aircraft over the past year. A second block of 23 more sophisticated helicopters remains under development.
The program to replace the current Presidential fleet of Sikorsky 3H-D and H-60 “Whitehawks”–some of which date back to the Ford Administration–has been controversial. The Government Accountability Office has estimated the program’s cost at more than $6.2 billion or $270 million per aircraft, and the selection of a foreign airframe drew political fire. A consortium of Lockheed Martin, AgustaWestland and Bell using the European AW101 airframe won the 32-ship VH-71 contract in 2005, over Sikorsky, which proposed a version of its twin-engine S-92. U.S.-based Sikorsky has been supplying Presidential helicopters since 1957.