- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2004

When the National Air and Space Museum opened the doors to its new facility near Dulles International Airport on Dec. 15, it displayed a Bell UH-13J Ranger, one of the first helicopters used to transport the president of the United States.

The Air Force chose Bell helicopters in 1957 to ferry Dwight D. Eisenhower to National Airport and, eventually, to Camp David and his farm in Gettysburg.

But a story not often told is how Eisenhower quickly switched from the Bell design to faster and much larger Sikorsky helicopters. It was the beginning of a 46-year-long relationship between Sikorsky and every commander in chief since.

On one day in particular, during an evacuation exercise to Camp David, Eisenhower took off from the White House lawn in a Bell. Ten minutes later, two Sikorsky UH-34D Seahorses took off from the Ellipse with the rest of the White House party. The Sikorsky helicopters arrived several minutes before the small Bell. When the president arrived, he was sweating from an uncomfortable ride and annoyed to find us on the ground, with the engines of our helicopter already off and cooled down. It was certainly no surprise that the Army and the Marine Corps, which both used Sikorsky UH-34s, were soon ordered to take over the presidential assignment. The helicopter became known as Marine One after the Corps assumed total control of the job.

Washington has seen a lot of changes since then, but a fleet of American-made Sikorsky helicopters has always been used for Marine One. It has been an ideal fit for the 80-year-old company, which was founded by helicopter pioneer Igor Sikorsky, a Russian immigrant who found success right here in the United States. Sikorsky helicopters have transported 10 presidents through the smooth and the turbulent times of our nation — from the Cuban missile crisis to September 11, 2001, and beyond.

Yet, I recently read the Pentagon is considering whether to ditch this Sikorsky tradition and award the next Marine One contract to a European helicopter-maker.

If such a move was made, the president would fly in a foreign helicopter. Sikorsky’s long ties to the White House would end. There is no apparent reason for severing this connection that I can see, unless it is political pressure from the Europeans. I am confident the Pentagon uses Sikorsky vehicles for the Marine One assignment because they are the safest and most secure VIP helicopters in the world. There has never been a Marine One accident, and Sikorsky is building on this record in its new design for the presidential fleet.

Over the years, the mission for Marine One has expanded significantly in support of the president’s duties. Marine One helicopters now fly the president to every part of the country and around the globe. The helicopter fleet also plays a vital role, now more than ever, in ensuring the safety of the president and his family, as well as White House staff and guests, which often include world leaders.

As the first Marine One pilot, it is an honor to be among the men and women who have served our country in this important assignment. For this reason, I hope the Pentagon will not yield to political pressure when making its decision about the future of the program.

President Eisenhower chose Sikorsky for Marine One based on security and excellence. And to this day, the White House and the Marine Corps still rely on U.S.-made Sikorsky helicopters. It is an American tradition we should treasure and continue.

VIRGIL OLSON

Retired colonel U.S. Marine Corps

Col. Olson was the first pilot for the Marine One presidential assignment and commanding officer of Marine Helicopter Squadron One from 1956-1959.

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