The US Navy has launched the brief bidding phase for a high-profile contract to build 23 helicopters for the presidential transport fleet.

A decision between the two-engine Sikorsky H-92 Super Hawk and the three-engined Lockheed Martin US101 is expected by next spring. The initial $1.6 billion VXX contract award covers development and early production lots.

Sikorsky hopes to secure the deal as a launch order for itsH-92, and maintain its status as the supplier of the presidential helicopter fleet, which now includes the VH-3D Sea King and the VH-60 Black Hawk. US101 designer AgustaWestland hopes to gain a foothold in the USA with team mates Lockheed Martin and Bell Helicopter. The latter would perform final assembly at Texas plants in Fort Worth or Amarillo if selected.

The VXX decision could also influence a much larger helicopter order planned by the US Air Force in fiscal year 2006 to replace the service's combat search and rescue fleet. The navy's John Milliman says flight testing is due to begin in 2005, giving the air force a chance to view the winning aircraft's performance.

The navy limited the VXX competition to the H-92 and US101 after ruling out the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey as non-transportable by military airlift, says Milliman.

Source: Flight International