White-top Helo: An illustration of Sikorsky's presidential helicopter bid, which is based on its successful S-92 commercial helo. (Sikorsky)
WASHINGTON — The US president apparently will continue to fly on Sikorsky helicopters — as he always has — if the latest competition to build a new white-top helo fleet is any indication.
Bidding on the VXX program closed on the afternoon of Aug. 1, and the Connecticut-based company is the only acknowledged bidder.
Days before, both Northrop Grumman-AgustaWestland and Bell-Boeing announced their intent not to bid on the program.
“We determined we were unable to compete effectively given the current requirements and the evaluation methodology defined in the RFP [request for proposals],” AgustaWestland, which was offering a version of its AW101 helicopter, said in a statement. “There are fundamental proposal evaluation issues that inhibit our ability to submit a competitive offering, and that provide a significant advantage to our likely competitor.”
Boeing, which had been expected to propose its H-47 Chinook helicopter or the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft made with Bell, also demurred.
“We do not believe these aircraft would be competitive for this program as it is currently structured,” Boeing spokesman Damien Mills said in a statement.
Partnered with Lockheed Martin, Sikorsky is offering a VIP version of its S-92 helicopter to replace older VH-3D and VH-60N aircraft, also built by the company.
The presidential helicopter fleet is flown by the US Marine Corps, while the aircraft are procured through the Navy. When he is aboard, the president’s helicopter is known as Marine One.
The government is seeking to acquire up to 23 operational helicopters, the first of which is to enter service in 2020.
In 2005, Lockheed Martin, partnered with AgustaWestland, beat out Sikorsky to win a VXX contract with the US101 helicopter. But increasing requirements from the White House and the Secret Service drove costs up prohibitively, and the program was canceled in 2009 after nine test aircraft had been delivered.
The 2005 competition was characterized by intense made-in-the-USA campaigns by both teams. Even though Lockheed incorporated more domestically-made components than Sikorsky, the team, whose airframe was to be built in Europe, could never shed the foreign-made label, particularly in Congress.
After the first VXX program was canceled and a new competition was announced, many industry observers felt the program would be greased for Sikorsky, particularly after the Osprey was found unsuitable for operations on the White House’s South Lawn.
The Navy, for its part, tried mightily to conduct a free and open competition. While the service is prohibited by law from revealing the number of bids, it is adamant that the competition was fair.
“The Navy is expecting competitive bids for this program,” said Capt. Cate Mueller, a Navy spokeswoman at the Pentagon. “If only one bid is received, that would indicate that no other prospective bidder believed they could meet the government’s minimum requirement at a lower cost than their expected competition. Regardless of the number of proposals received, we will absolutely ensure a cost-effective solution for VXX before moving forward.”
Mueller said the service took pains in the RFP to avoid favoring any one platform.
“The requirements are not aligned to any specific mature air vehicle, and these adjustments to performance requirements were to the benefit of all potential offerors,” she said.
Mueller noted that the Navy remained engaged with the industry teams throughout the process.
“Following release of a draft RFP on Nov. 23, 2012, extensive communication with industry facilitated refinement of the specification and contract structure,” she said. “Numerous changes were made to the RFP to accommodate different approaches by industry without giving any one offeror an advantage or disadvantage.”
While Mueller said the service would be “disappointed” if only one bid was received, mechanisms are in place to keep costs down.
“In a full and open competition in which a single bid is received, provisions exist to gather additional cost data from the bidder to ensure a fair and reasonable price has been submitted for evaluation,” she said.
Sikorsky claimed its bid is competitive, regardless of the number of bidders.
“We intend to provide the best deal to the taxpayer regardless of the number of competitors, and our proposal reflects that,” spokesman Fran Jurgens said on Aug. 2 “This is a full and open competition.”
More than 200 S-92s are in service around the world, Jurgens said, accumulating more than 550,000 flying hours since the type’s introduction in 2004. Ten countries fly their heads of state in the aircraft, including Turkey, where the first of two presidential aircraft was delivered in May.
The largest use of the S-92 — often configured for 19 passengers — is in the offshore oil industry, where a major customer is China. In June, Sikorsky announced a new contract with Zhuhai Helicopter Co. for more S-92s, giving the company a total of nine.
Operated along with Sikorsky S-76s, Zhuhai helos support offshore oil operations in the South China Sea.
On the same day, Sikorsky announced a contract with China’s CITIC Offshore Helicopter Co. for two S-92s, also for offshore oil industry use.
Canada’s CHC Helicopters operates 33 S-92s worldwide, flying in Australia, Brazil, Denmark, Malaysia, Norway and the United Kingdom. The aircraft is frequently seen in the North Sea, where Bristow Norway operates 52 S-92s.
But it is in the North Sea that the aircraft has acquired the reputation as something of a pilot-buster.
According to several published articles and Web message boards, the noise level in the cockpit has led some pilots and air crew members to suffer from tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, along with discomfort possibly linked to noise and vibration.
The Norwegian technical magazine Teknisk Ukeblad reported in November that of 110 Bristow S-92 pilots, five had lost their air certifications because of tinnitus, and six others were on sick leave due to problems related to cockpit noise. Together, they constitute 10 percent of the company’s S-92 pilots.
Negative comments on the S-92’s noise level date from 2005 on the PPRuNe Professional Pilots Rumour Network billboard. Many of the comments pointed to cockpit cooling fans as a culprit.
“After only a short exposure to the S-92, it is the loudest work environment I know,” one pilot wrote in September 2007. “Every bit of glass and plexi[glass] in the front office is moving like a drum skin. The windshield must be moving in and out 0.5 cm with the passage of each blade (roughly 16 Hz). It is an astounding acoustic assault.”
“I started getting problems with tinnitus almost immediately after I started flying the S-92,” another wrote in February 2009.
Sikorsky said the company has made fixes.
“Sikorsky is continually improving the S-92 aircraft and its systems in response to customer feedback, something we do all the time,” Jurgens said. “We have made improvements to the cockpit noise and vibration levels since we began delivering S-92 aircraft in airliner configuration in 2004.
“S-92 helicopters contain both passive and active vibration control systems,” Jurgens continued. “S-92 VIP aircraft feature additional soundproofing, and an expanded vibration control system. Those customers who want an exceptionally quiet cabin will have a differently configured aircraft, which also have lower cockpit noise and vibration levels.
“The S-92 will give the office of the president a quieter ride than the current Marine One fleet,” he predicted.