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In 1957, while President Dwight Eisenhower was on vacation in Newport, Rhode Island, he was recalled urgently to Washington.
Instead of driving two hours around Narragansett Bay, which separated him from the airport where Air Force One was parked, or enduring a rough 40-minute ferry ride, Eisenhower opted to fly in a U.S. Marine Corps Sikorsky UH-34 Choctaw. The 10-minute flight to his plane saw Eisenhower become the first president to use a rotorcraft for official duty.
The flight was not Eisenhower’s first, but he is said to have preferred the H-34 over a competing company’s plastic bubble cockpit, according to Sikorsky president Dan Schultz, who spoke at an Oct. 3 ceremony at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia. The occasion was to mark the unveiling of the White House Historical Association’s annual Christmas ornament, which this year is shaped like one of Eisenhower’s H-34 presidential helicopters.
All the following 12 White House residents have flown in helicopters since Ike popularized them. Eisenhower wrote a famous letter to Sikorsky founder Igor Sikorsky on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the first flight of a helicopter in the U.S.
“As the inventor of this aircraft, you are justifiably proud to have success in rapid development,” Eisenhower wrote. “You are perhaps familiar with my use of helicopters in recent years. For my purposes they are invaluable. I have also been repeatedly impressed by stories of rescue missions in which their unique capabilities have enabled them to perform with particular effectiveness, saving lives that would otherwise have been lost.”
The 1957 flight was the unofficial beginning of the presidential worldwide vertical lift mission that still exists today. Marine Helicopter Squadron One, or HMX-1, had existed as an experimental aviation unit base in Quantico for about a decade by 1957, according to retired Marine Corps Col. Kevin Wild, a former HMX-1 commander.
“This is the only no-fail mission the Marine Corps has,” Wild said.
The unit to this day flies the president around Washington, D.C., to and from Camp David and back and forth to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where Air Force One is stationed.
Sikorsky has provided all of the HMX-1 helicopters, designated “Marine One” when the president is aboard, beginning with the H-34. Initially, the mission of flying the president was shared 50/50 between an Army and a Marine Corps detachment, each with its own H-34s.
The Army eventually withdrew from the mission, leaving the Marine Corps to take over rotorcraft flights for the president. In 1963, the H-34 aircraft were replaced by the VH-3A Sea King in 1963 and the VH-3D in 1974. Sikorsky will again replace the presidential helicopter fleet with the VH-92, based on the commercial S-92, now in development.
“We’re looking forward to the next 62 years,” Schutlz said. The S-92 “is the safest, most reliable helicopter in the entire world today. . . . It is an incredible honor and also a duty for us to bring this helicopter into the presidential fleet.”
Several VH-92s are in flight test at Naval Station Patuxent River in Maryland, south of Washington, D.C. They are not authorized to carry the president yet, but should eventually replace the current fleet of VH-3D “Marine One” Sea Kings and VH-60N White Hawks, both made by Sikorsky.
The company is cleared to build six VH-92s under a $542 million low-rate production Navy contract awarded in May. Those aircraft will be delivered to the Marine Corps between 2021 and 2023. Marine Corps plans call for a fleet of 23 VH-92s, including 17 production helicopters — four for training and two test aircraft.