Trouble On The Takeoff

Shortly after 9/11, the White House decided that the president needed a new helicopter. The current Marine One fleet was more than 30 years old and needed upgrades to its in-flight protection and communications gear. So when a contract for a new fleet was announced in January 2005, the Pentagon flagged it a top-priority rush project. But three years later, two industry sources involved with the project who did not want to be named because of its sensitivity, say that major tinkering with Lockheed Martin's winning design has left the new bird, the VH-71, some 2,000 pounds overweight. Efforts to fix the problem have required such a rethinking of its structure that, in the words of one source, "we're essentially designing a new helicopter."

What went wrong? Lockheed won the bid by proposing changes to an existing model that has been flying the pope and NATO troops around Europe. But the Navy's goal was to build a flying Oval Office with communications rivaling those in Air Force One, the president's Boeing 747. The Navy also demanded state-of-the-art missile defenses and protection against a nuclear blast, more engine power and range than the European version, and a 14-person cabin with an executive bathroom. Altogether, the industry sources say, the Navy has demanded 800 design changes.

Cramming all the new features into a craft that's about 65 feet long has proved challenging. Five of the new helicopters are still scheduled to arrive on time in late 2009—but without many of the requested upgrades. The Navy and Lockheed are now debating how to build the rest of the fleet. Both parties have gone back to "zero," an industry source said, but "I don't know they can get there from here." Lockheed spokesman Tom Jurkowsky referred a request for comment to the Navy. In a statement, Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. John Schofield acknowledged "some requirement misunderstandings early in the program," but he said that Lockheed and the Navy are now "in agreement … and have made significant progress."