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thedrifter
03-17-09, 11:20 AM
Does the President Need 23 Helicopters?
By John M. Donnelly, CQ Staff

The controversy over the high cost of new presidential helicopters — on average about $464 million apiece, which has led the Defense Department to put a hold on most of the project — also highlights the expanding size of the presidential air force, which in the next decade could expand to 26 aircraft.

Nineteen choppers are now at President Obama’s disposal and are designated “Marine One” when he’s aboard, along with two 747 airliners called “Air Force One” when he travels. The Air Force would like to replace the big jets with three new ones starting in 2017, and the Navy plans to put a total of 28 new presidential helicopters in the air, although five would be interim vehicles. The net result is the Marine One fleet, with its distinctive white tops, would grow to 23 helicopters.

Why does one president need 23 helicopters? Good question, said the Congressional Research Service in a report this month on the Navy’s program to buy the specially fitted VH-71 helicopters from Lockheed Martin Corp. The Navy doesn’t give reasons for needing more choppers in the inventory, the report says, adding: “It appears reasonable to ask whether an operational force of 19 new and more-capable helicopters couldn’t replace an operational force of 19 old and less-capable helicopters.”

Indeed, Gene T. Boyer, a retired Army officer who flew helicopters for Dwight D. Eisenhower and three other presidents, says the 12 helicopters they had then would be enough now. Anything more, he says, “is overkill.”

Some other former members of the presidential helicopter squadron — the Marines took over the job in 1976 — say the White House needs at least as many as it has now.

Sure there is only one president, they say, but the squadron is available to carry the vice president, Cabinet members, the secretary of the Navy, the Marine Corps commandant and visiting heads of state. Also, security requires at least two aircraft on every mission. Then there is the highly classified “continuity of government” task that keeps several helicopters near the Capitol to evacuate top officials in the event of attack or catastrophe.

There also are presidential journeys. About 10 days before a trip, domestic or foreign, helicopters are sent to the location to rehearse. On average, Obama has flown on Marine One about once every couple of days.

In addition, some aircraft must be used for training. Marine pilots can get time flying these choppers only one place, and that is in the presidential squadron. Besides those demands, a third of the squadron will be off the line at any one time for maintenance or other purposes — parts on a presidential helicopter are replaced halfway through their projected lives. One chopper is used for testing upgrades. And one is for “attrition,” meaning just in case.

One Marine One pilot from the 1980s, Bob Sherwell, said the 19 helicopters they had were not sufficient. “Twenty-three sounds perfectly reasonable,” he said. “We didn’t have enough.”

Ellie