Lockheed Martin has announced the VH-71 presidential helicopter has passed another milestone as the programme awaits a critical funding decision by the US Congress.
The team has completed the debut flight of the first production version of the VH-71 at the factory in Yeovil, UK.
A US Air Force Boeing C-17 will next airlift the aircraft to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. A Lockheed crew will then fly the aircraft to Owego, New York to install mission systems hardware.
The helicopter is the first of five pilot production aircraft that will be delivered to replace the oldest aircraft in the current presidential helicopter fleet. Delivering the five pilot production aircraft will complete the Increment 1 phase of the programme, which includes four more test vehicles already flying.
Increment 2 will follow with a more sophisticated version of the aircraft to meet the White House’s requirement’s for “increased capability to provide a command and control platform”, Lockheed says.
The future of that programme, however, is uncertain while Congress debates the funding.
Earlier this year, one of the eight Congressional committees with authority over defence spending slashed the budget for the Increment 2 phase in fiscal year 2009 by $212 million. That budget cut must be resolved when members of both the House and Senate meet in late September to work out differences between the different spending proposals.
The VH-71 has been tarred since contract award in 2004 by repeated cost overruns and a major redesign required for the Increment 2 aircraft.
Lockheed has assumed responsibility for missioninzing all Increment 1 airframes in Owego, but plans to shift that work to Bell Helicopter in Amarillo, Texas, for the Increment 2 phase.
Lockheed confirms that all Increment 1 aircraft will be delivered to the US from Yeovil within the next six months. Software coding for the missions systems aboard the aircraft is 98% complete, the company says.