Last June during a business event in Connecticut, Sikorsky president Paul Lemmo said the company’s VH-92A Patriot helicopter would take over presidential transport missions flown by VH-3D and VH-60N helicopters “completely” by this spring.

But according to the US Marine Corps (USMC) and Naval Air Systems Command’s (NAVAIR’s) Presidential Helicopters Program Office, that still has not happened.

Why remains unclear, as does when and if VH-92As – which have been in service since 2021 – will actually start carrying US presidents.

VH-92A Landing on White House South Lawn

Source: Sergeant Hunter Helis/US Marine Corps

Sikorsky in 2014 won a contract to supply its VH-92A as the presidential helicopter

Meanwhile, some 21 years after the Department of Defense (DoD) launched its presidential helicopter replacement effort, the USMC’s decades-old Sikorsky VH-3D and VH-60N helicopters continue carrying the torch as Marine One.

“VH-92A tasking for presidential support will be at the discretion of the White House Military Office and upon successful completion of the ongoing… VH-92A Commissioning Program. This is an event-driven goal, not a time-driven one,” Captain Alyssa Myers, communication strategy and operations officer for the USMC’s Communication Directorate, said on 25 April.

That is the same statement FlightGlobal received from NAVAIR several days prior, and identical to statements received from the USMC and NAVAIR dating back at least three years.

Bloomberg on 22 April reported that VH-92As are still not carrying the president because the type’s GE Aerospace CT7-8A6 turboshaft engines, and their auxiliary power units, scorch the grass on the White House’s South Lawn.

That is old news, too, as problems with the Patriot singeing tall fescue on the South Lawn were noted in 2018 shortly after the first VH-92 test aircraft were transferred to the government. The problem was also noted in a Government Accountability Office report from June 2020, which explained that Patriot programme leaders were studying solutions including “aircraft design changes, lawn-surface treatments and operational procedural changes to minimise landing zone risks”.

The VH-92A is already behind schedule. The helicopter was to become operational in 2020, but that milestone slipped to December 2021, when the USMC and White House Military Office declared the type’s initial operational capability.

Closing on three years later, Myers says, “Nine VH-92A aircraft are available for Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1) use.”

The programme office adds the USMC has received 20 of the 23 VH-92As it intends to acquire under the $5 billion acquisition programme, with the remaining helicopters to be delivered this fiscal year, which ends on 30 September.

The aircraft are intended to replace the 11 VH-3Ds and eight VH-60Ns that continue to transport the president. The VH-3Ds have been in service with HMX-1 since 1974, while the VH-60Ns joined the squadron in 1988.

Over the last two years, VH-92As have reportedly been used to transport secret service and other government officials. But why the expensive new aircraft do not carry President Joe Biden is still unclear.

VH-92A Landing on White House South Lawn 2

Source: US Marine Corps

A VH-92A landing on the White House’s South Lawn

Queried about missions the Patriot is currently used for, the USMC and the programme office only say that HMX-1 assigns its three helicopter types – VH-3Ds, VH-60Ns and VH-92As – to “various missions”.

“Due to operational security, we are unable to discuss specific missions,” officials add.

The effort to replace the VH-3Ds and VH-60Ns dates back to 2003 when the VXX Presidential Helicopter Program was launched.

The DoD had selected Lockheed Martin’s US101, a derivation of AgustaWestland’s AW101, as the winning design in January 2005. Dubbed the VH-71 Kestrel, that aircraft’s development costs ballooned, and by 2008 the 28 US101s were projected to cost more than $11 billion.

The VH-71 programme was cancelled in 2009 after the delivery of nine of the helicopters at a cost of $600 million per aircraft, leading the USMC to sell the Kestrels to Canada for parts. In 2012, the VXX effort was relaunched, and by 2014 Sikorsky – acquired by Lockheed in 2015 – was selected for a 23-aircraft programme.

NAVAIR says the aircraft carries two pilots, one communication system operator, one crew chief and up to 14 passengers. It has a maximum gross weight of 12,560kg (27,700lb).

The Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) assessed the VH-92A as “operationally effective and suitable for all missions” in its report published in January 2023. Unlike a previous DOT&E review in 2021, the office’s 2023 report made no mention of problems with frying grass.

Now, a decade after Sikorsky’s Patriot was selected, the company on 25 April referred questions about why VH-92As have yet to perform presidential transport duties – for which US taxpayers have funded to the tune of $5 billion – to NAVAIR. Neither NAVAIR’s programme office nor the USMC offered an explanation.