Biden’s New Chopper Is Demoted After Scorching White House Lawn

President Joe Biden steps off of Marine One
President Joe Biden steps off of Marine One as he arrives on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., on April 18, 2024. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON — The new presidential helicopter has been demoted to backup duty because Lockheed Martin Corp. still can’t figure out how to keep it from scorching the White House’s South Lawn.

The VH-92 Patriot is landing only on paved runways for now, flying missions with White House officials or Secret Service staff instead of carrying President Joe Biden. The problem is down to an issue first identified in 2018 — the helicopter’s spinning rotors and engine exhaust sometimes scorch the grass where it lands.

With its emblematic “white top” paint job, Marine One — its designation when the president is on board — is as much a symbol of the U.S. presidency as Air Force One. Crowds of reporters and White House guests often gather to watch the president depart from its traditional takeoff spot on the South Lawn.

For the time being, the helicopter doing that job will remain the VH-3D Sea King, which like the VH-92 is is built by Lockheed’s Sikorsky unit.

Lockheed has so far delivered 20 VH-92 helicopters to the Marine Corps under the $5 billion program, Lockheed spokeswoman Melissa Chadwick said. She said the company believes it’s found a fix and will start testing soon.

“We have been working in close collaboration with our customer and have an agreed upon landing zone solution with testing planned to validate and ensure the aircraft meets that specific operational requirement,” Chadwick said.

According to a White House official, who asked not to be identified discussing private conversations, engineering and design work is underway to see if fixes can be made to prevent grass damage under hot environmental conditions when rotors are turning.

The current fleet of presidential helicopters entered duty in 1975, a year after Richard Nixon resigned, walked across the South Lawn and waved the victory sign from the steps of Marine One in one of the the defining images of his presidency.

Earlier plans for a replacement from Lockheed were canceled in 2009 after that program was plagued by soaring costs and delays.

The helicopter is operating under a White House Military Office-approved “phased transition plan” during which “all respective offices are working diligently to ensure a smooth, safe, and timely transition from the traditional fleet to the VH-92A,” the White House said in a statement.

The White House declined to say when the helicopter will be ready to carry Biden.

“Tasking for presidential support is at the discretion of the White House Military Office and upon successful completion of the ongoing commissioning program,” it said. The transition to the new presidential helicopter “is an event-driven goal, not a time-driven one.”

The Pentagon’s annual test report released in January for the first time deemed the helicopter “operationally effective for all operations” after improvements were made to address another problem — this one with voice communication. That report was silent on the issue of grass scorching.

Nikolas Guertin, the Navy’s assistant secretary for acquisition, told a congressional subcommittee last week the service is asking for about $120 million to improve issues including “mission systems, maintainability, reliability” and obsolescent parts.

“These efforts include Mission Communications System hardware and software upgrades, distributed network communications, cockpit upgrades, extended-range, cabin noise reduction, aircraft performance enhancements, and improved rotor blades,” Guertin said in a prepared statement. It also didn’t mention concerns around scorching the South Lawn.


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