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A test flight for the president's new chopper

Sometime after the next inauguration, the White House will replace its helicopter. Shakedown cruises are now under way.

The White House is getting ready to trade in its aging "Marine One" helicopter for a new model, though don't go looking for President Bush to take it for a spin.

VH-71 helicopter
The VH-71's first flight, July 2007. Lockheed Martin

The first test aircraft built for the VH-71 Presidential Helicopters Program made its maiden flight Tuesday--in British airspace--in a flight that lasted about 40 minutes, at speeds up to 135 knots.

Why the overseas locale? The helicopter isn't quite a cutting-edge design, despite the billing by its manufacturers as "the world's most technologically advanced helicopter." Instead, it's based on AgustaWestland's decade-old, three-engine EH101 helicopter, relabeled more patriotically as the US101 by lead contractor Lockheed Martin. (A "Made in America" note on the company's US101 Medium-Lift Helicopter page points out that more than 200 U.S. suppliers in 41 states have joined the US101 program.) The test flight of the VH-71 took place at the Yeovil, England, facility of AgustaWestland, which in turn is a unit of Italy's Finmeccanica.

It makes sense, of course, to be using a proven commodity when the passengers will include the leader of the free world and other heads of state. Lockheed Martin et al. say that more than 130 of the 101s, designed from the start for military duty, have logged upwards of 120,000 flight hours handling assignments ranging from troop transport to battlefield logistics and combat search and rescue.

Marine One helicoper
The current version of Marine One. White House photo by David Bohrer

In addition, the US101 companies say, the helicopter's "low vibration will allow the president to work in transit in unprecedented comfort and efficiency."

In its new VH-71 guise, the aircraft is slated for more shakedown cruises before crossing the Atlantic in the fall for structural testing at a facility in Patuxent River, Md. (Lockheed Martin is based in Bethesda.) Three more test vehicles are expected to head aloft by early 2008.

Those four aircraft plus five pilot production versions of the VH-71 are expected to be delivered by late 2009, to complete the Increment 1 phase. Increment 2 will look at the helicopters' command and control capabilities while in flight.

At the moment, the primary presidential helicopter is the Sikorsky VH-3D, also known as the Sea King.