The first two Lockheed Martin VH-71A presidential helicopters have entered flight testing at the US Navy's test centre in Patuxent River, Maryland. Built by AgustaWestland in the UK, test vehicles TV-2 and TV-5 were delivered by US Air Force Boeing C-17s late last year.

The helicopters are the first of four US Navy-owned test vehicles for Increment One of the troubled VH-71 programme. An industry-owned aircraft, an EH101 designated TV-1, has been in flight test since 2005 and has accumulated 555 flight hours.

VH-71 TV-2
VH-71 test vehicle TV-2                                       © US Navy

VH-71 TV-5
VH-71 test vehicle TV-5                                       © US Navy

TV-2 and TV-5 are being used for structural and propulsion testing. Two more Increment One test aircraft, TV-3 and TV-4, will undergo additional assembly and missionisation at prime contractor Lockheed Martin Systems Integration in Owego, New York before delivery to Pax River later this year for mission system testing.

The US Navy says all nine Increment One aircraft, including the initial fleet of five presidential helicopters, will be delivered to Pax River over the next 11 months. All of these VH-71 will be assembed in the UK by AgustaWestland. The aircraft are intended to replace the US Marine Corps' Sikorsky VH-3D presidential helicopters.

The fate of the 23 planned Increment Two helicopters, which would have a bigger rotor and more powerful engines to increase payload and performance, remains unclear. The programme is to be restructured because of budget overruns and schedule delays, and some reports suggest the second increment could be cancelled.