S-92 and EH 101 grapple for honor of providing Marine One

 - October 12, 2007, 10:49 AM

Like its predecessors, it would be the most widely recognized helicopter in the world– the personal transport for the world’s most powerful leader, a leader who has traveled by helicopter since the mid-1950s. And a leader who had traveled in the same make and almost the same model of American-made helicopter most of those days. So when the President of the United States decides to shop around for a new short-range ride, the news brings makers of suitably sized rotorcraft running. So far the race for the new Marine One is shaping up as a contest between Sikorsky’s newly certificated S-92 and EH Industries’ US 101 (a U.S. version of the EH 101). While Sikorsky took the field first, staging VIP demonstrations at Quantico, Va., and Davison Army Airfield in mid-May, within days EH Industries began demonstrating its three-engine behemoth to the few, the proud and the brave throughout the U.S.

Sikorsky is pressing home the S-92’s commonality with the well proven and much-liked Black Hawk, low projected per-hour flight costs and Sikorsky’s long-established relationship with HMX-1, the elite Marine squadron that provides top-level U.S. government flights (every Presidential helicopter, save one, has been a Sikorsky product–the exception being a three-seat Bell 47 variant used briefly by President Dwight Eisenhower).

For its part, EH 101 maker AgustaWestland and American partner Lockheed Martin have signed Bell onto their team, renaming their product the US 101 (a reference to that most American of highways, the Pacific Coast Highway, famous for its use as a background in countless automobile ads and movies). The move comes as an obvious effort to Americanize the effort to sell the US 101, not just to an elite Marine VIP squadron, but also to a Pentagon that has adopted fewer foreign-made military aircraft in its lifetime than most of us have fingers. For Bell/Lockheed, the Marine One program comes at a time when worldwide delivery obligations of the EH 101 are drawing to a close.

As always in any such high-stakes poker game, there are the cards on the table and those played quietly behind the scenes. In the case of the new Marine One, one card from that latter deck has emerged in the form of a letter from British Prime Minister Tony Blair to President George Bush asking for serious consideration of the US 101 as a quid pro quo for UK support as part of the U.S.-led anti-Iraq coalition. Just how much weight that letter, with its implied obligation and the fact that there’s a good chance a US 101/Marine One successor would be built in Bush’s state of residence (Texas), would carry is anybody’s guess. Given the shaky state of the U.S. economy, the success of any government program that could be perceived as cutting American jobs would seem doubtful indeed.

Off the Shelf?
The proposed US 101 would not be an off-the-shelf EH 101. American mission requirements and political necessities call for an increased “American content” in any U.S.-adopted aircraft. “To sell the 101 to the military, they’ve got to have a U.S. production base,” said Rhett Flater, executive director of the American Helicopter Society and a former Marine Corps pilot. Lockheed would be the prime contractor for the program and handle the installation of flight-control and communications systems.

Many proponents of the Sikorsky design point to the allegedly low American content in the EH 101, an ironic claim considering that one of Sikorsky’s sales points since inception of the S-92 program has been its high number of international participating, risk-sharing partners, nearly a dozen in all. The content of those official partners would have to be adjusted as well, since one of them, Jingdezhen Helicopter Group of the People’s Republic of China, is banned from manufacturing components for U.S. military systems. Such components as the S-92 horizontal stabilizer and tail-rotor support structure would have to be either made in-house by Sikorsky or subcontracted to legally acceptable manufacturers. Presumably Sikorsky has long been prepared to step in on the creation of such parts, since it has been trying to sell a military version of the S-92 virtually since the day of the program’s inception.

The Presidential squadron currently numbers 11 special-mission helicopters, a blend of the 1960s-vintage Sikorsky H-3s and 1980s- era VH-60s. Present plans would not only upgrade that fleet to a more modern aircraft type but also to a larger fleet, numbering no more than 18 to 20 new helicopters. A tentative schedule released by the Navy, which manages the Marines’ air needs, calls for official release of a request for proposal for the new helicopters by the end of this year, and an award sometime next summer.

The first proposed Marine One S-92s would become operational in 2007 at the earliest. Such an S-92 would likely be powered by a larger engine, given the anticipated high weight of a Presidential interior completion. GE, powerplant maker for the S-92, has already officially committed to developing and building a beefier 3,069-shp version, dubbed the CT7C, of the current 2,520-shp engine, an improvement intended to cover weight-rise contingencies and future aircraft growth.