MARINE ONE

The beautifully manicured South Lawn slopes gently from the columned…

The beautifully manicured South Lawn slopes gently from the columned portico of the White House toward the Ellipse and the National Mall across Constitution Avenue. The tree-lined lawn is the site of formal head-of-state arrivals, the annual Easter Egg Roll and other ceremonies. But three removable, painted aluminum disks mark the lawn’s most frequent use as the landing point for “Marine One,” the President’s helicopter. Nearly every day, a glossy green and white Sikorsky VH-3D Sea King modified for VIP transport takes off and lands within yards of the Executive Mansion and the Oval Office in the West Wing. The President emerging from the helicopter’s forward hatch to the salute of a full-dress Marine is an iconic national image.

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The tiltrotor Bell Boeing MV-22 looks to replace the Sikorsky VH-3 for Marine One.

White House flight operations are so smooth and flawless that few observers give them more than a passing thought, but efficient VIP transport is a major focus of one of the world’s busiest military aviation units—Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1). Squadron members call themselves the Nighthawks, but nearly everyone else refers to HMX-1 as “Marine One,” the designation assigned for any Marine rotorcraft when the President is on board.

Executive transport is a huge responsibility, but it is only one aspect of HMX-1’s duties that have been fulfilled for more than 60 years by generations of Marine aviators and enlisted personnel. The unit’s history is equally interesting and forms the core of Marine Corps rotary wing aviation.

HMX Flashback

Marine interest in helicopters dates back to the 1930s, with the creation of the Pitcairn Autogyro, and Igor Sikorsky’s helicopter designs in the 1940s. Immediately after World War II, Corps leaders realized helicopters could help overcome the impact of nuclear weapons on amphibious assault forces, the Marines’ stock in trade. Marine Experimental Helicopter Squadron One (The “X” stands for “Experimental” and remains in the designation although the squadron dropped that part of its name years ago), the Marines’ first helicopter squadron, was established to develop aerial assault techniques and tactics and evaluate helicopter missions. It set up operations on December 1, 1947, with just 10 members at Marine Corps Air Station (now Facility) Quantico, Virginia, where it still runs today.

The unit’s primary role was evaluating the tactical value of new helicopter technology, first explored in early 1948 with five Sikorsky HO3S-1 light utility helicopters. By 1949, with the addition of Piasecki HRP transport helicopters, HMX-1 began flying vertical envelopment assault missions. The squadron continues to support the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, developing refined tactics, techniques and procedures for various missions as well as familiarization training for ground and other aviation forces.

HMX-1 assumed additional responsibilities for Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) for new helicopters and flight systems as rotary wing technologies improved. Over the years, HMX-1 has tested every helicopter the Marine Corps has considered and adopted. This unit ran initial flight tests for the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor as this hybrid aircraft evolved and later entered active service. A new squadron, VMX-22, now conducts MV-22 OT&E, but VMX-1 paid a price for its early involvement with the program. Three of its assigned pilots and one crewman died in two fatal mishaps in 2000.

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