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Crash-Prone Hybrid Copter's New Mission: Hauling the President's Peeps

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Crash-Prone Hybrid Copter's New Mission: Hauling the President's Peeps

It crashed four times in development, killing 30 crew and passengers. An unexplained crashduring a combat mission in Afghanistan last year claimed four more lives. Despite its lethal reputation, in April the controversial V-22 Osprey tiltrotor got a high-profile new assignment: hauling cargo for the president’s entourage, starting in 2013.

Now that mission has expanded, and the Osprey will haul the entourage itself. A July solicitation by the Marine Corps asks for a company to supply VIP kits for four Ospreys. The kits include a liner to disguise the cabin’s pipes and wires, softer seats and a carpet bearing the squadron logo for the aircraft’s ramp.

Some observers see the VIP mods as a baby step towards putting the president himself in the $100-million dollar aircraft, dubbed the “Dream Machine” by one fawning writer. After an expensive false start, the Pentagon wants to buy a new fleet of presidential transports starting in 2017. The V-22 is officially a candidate.

Depending on whom you ask, the new mission could be proof that the Bell- and Boeing-built Osprey — which takes off vertically like a helicopter but flies fast like an airplane —  has put its troubled past behind it. “The Osprey fans predictably see this as a ringing endorsement,” ace reporter Bill Sweetman wrote.

Or, the move could be a sign of desperation by a Pentagon quickly running out of reliable large helicopters. In other words, lacking a viable alternative, the military believes it has little choice but to assign crash-prone Ospreys to presidential-support duty, because only the 100-strong Marine Osprey force has time and airframes to spare.

Marine Corps squadron HMX-1, based in Virginia, handles presidential transportation duties. It commands a large fleet of specially equipped H-3, H-60, H-46 and H-53 helicopters. Only the H-3s and H-60s, with their distinctive white-and-green paint jobs, routinely carry the president. The other birds, painted green, haul the prez’s peeps and their cargo.

Problem is, a decade of war has stretched the Marines’ chopper fleet to the breaking point. The roughly 150 heavy-lift CH-53Es, in particular, are in high demand for cargo duties all over the world. The new CH-53K model is still nearly a decade away from service, so the Marines are pulling older H-53s out of storage and yanking them from noncombat units, including HMX-1. From now on, all H-53s stay on the front lines.

That means backfilling the presidential squadron with less-in-demand aircraft. The brand-new Osprey, with just half the payload of a typical H-53, is just about the only aircraft still spending much of its time on the ramp. “Unless someone can explain otherwise, it looks as though the combat forces find the CH-53E, designed in the days of disco and delivered in the 1980s, more valuable than the ‘Dream Machine,’” Sweetman wrote.

But assigning a second-tier aircraft to presidential support could prove a profoundly false economy if the next V-22 crash involves the president’s entourage — or worse, the president himself.

Photo: Michael Pereckas/Flickr

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