By Jeff Newman
As the helicopter lifted off and took flight, the team of maintainers with Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (HX) 21 could scarcely believe what they had accomplished. Tasked to transform a stripped-down aircraft into a viable test asset, the team had accepted the challenge and delivered.
The men loved doing the work,” said Tony Weidner, maintenance material control officer at the Presidential Helicopter Support Facility (PHSF) at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland. “They wanted something complex like this, something challenging, so they got a lot of satisfaction and pride out of that first flight, and the successful functional check flight. None of them looked the other way or had an attitude that this was beyond our capability.”
The flight marked the first time in more than four years that the NVH-3A Sea King—known as 614 in reference to its bureau number, 150614—had taken to the sky. Now a test bed, 614 entered service in 1972 with Marine Helicopter Squadron (HMX) 1. As one of the presidential helicopters known by the call sign “Marine One,” 614 transported Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford before joining Helicopter Combat Support Squadron (HC) 6 in 1976.
After accumulating 4,500 flight hours, the chopper was sent to the Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center at David-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona for preservation from 1977 to 1984.
The aircraft eventually came out of storage, underwent depot maintenance, and in 1988 arrived at the Naval Air Test Center (NATC) at NAS Patuxent River. It remained a test vehicle until 2013, when it was slated to lead the fleet as the first test aircraft to undergo a cockpit upgrade program (CUP) in support of a major avionics change for the VH-3D Sea King, one of two aircraft types—alongside the VH-60N White Hawk—to currently serve as Marine One.
But the CUP was canceled before any actual upgrades were made, leaving 614 stripped down and in “an unusable state,” said Greg Baughman, lead test engineer for the Presidential Helicopters Program Office.
“There weren’t even any wires in it,” said Tim Norton, the PHSF’s maintenance officer.
Seeing the potential of the aircraft and the impact it would have as a test asset, the program office took a unique approach—in August 2014, the effort began to return 614 to service as a viable VH-3D test bed by tasking HX-21’s maintainers.
It was an unprecedented challenge for a team accustomed to repairing aircraft.
“It’s not what we’re in the business of doing,” Norton said. “Nobody does this here. Normally, this would have been an aircraft manufacturing thing.”
“We’re a test team,” Baughman added. “We don’t build airplanes.”
“I don’t know if NAVAIR has ever had a contract logistics support maintenance team do anything like that,” Weidner said.
Parts, wiring, harnesses and engineering documents and support were ordered from the manufacturer, but the VH-3D components had to be modified to fit 614’s NVH-3A airframe.
In all, HX-21 maintainers machined more than 200 custom parts, all of which had to go through engineering approval, said Dwight “Chic” James, the PHSF’s quality assurance officer.
“We had to create a manufacturing quality assurance process, which is different than what we normally do in a maintenance environment,” James said. “I don’t know if anybody on that crew has done this volume of work on a particular aircraft.”
The crew ultimately installed a new powerplant, drivetrain, rotors, landing gear, and electrical, avionics and fuel systems, all of which were different from 614’s previous components.
The end result was a test aircraft that more closely replicated its fleet version.
“Before, the aircraft had some VH-3D-like systems in racks. The avionics were in racks in the cabin and that’s how they had to use them,” James said. “The right-hand side of the cockpit was the only VH-3D portion, and now the entire ship is essentially a VH-3D aircraft.”
Now when a test pilot gets in 614, it mirrors what he’s going to see in the real thing, minus the carpet and furniture that greet the president on Marine One.
“But we do have air conditioning coming,” Norton said.
Norton praised James and his quality assurance team for writing an exhaustive list of special step-by-step procedures and checkpoints, which resulted in a pristine aircraft.
The work tested the maintainers, but “when it was done, I think it gave us the warm, fuzzy feeling that everything had been touched and looked at, and when we started inspecting the airplane we just didn’t find stuff wrong,” Norton said.
As with any challenging task, there were days when the team wasn’t quite sure how everything would be accomplished.
“There were doubts up until the day it flew,” Baughman said.
So when 614 finally hovered again for the first time April 4, it was a good day for the team. “It was definitely a weight lifted off everybody’s shoulders,” Norton said.
The return of 614 to the flight line at NAS Patuxent River carries sentimental value for Glenn Perryman, whose father flew the aircraft as HMX-1’s Commanding Officer from 1971 to 1974 (see sidebar below).
“It’s kind of like a continuation of my dad’s legacy,” said Perryman, deputy program executive officer for Air Anti-Submarine Warfare, Assault, and Special Mission Programs. “They did an incredible job on that aircraft. They completely tore it down and rebuilt it, and the word from the program office is that it’s ‘immaculate.’”
Baughman said there are active projects on 614 now, including operational flight program updates, a lighting program, and upgrades to the VXP system, which performs rotor track and balance.
“The big thing is having a test bed asset like this means we’re not borrowing an in-service presidential helicopter to get that testing done,” he added. “The contractor doesn’t have one; we’re the only game in town if you want to fly something on a surrogate VH-3D.”
“Professionally, it’s quite an accomplishment, and definitely something to be proud of, given the challenge that was put forth to the group,” Baughman said.
Jeff Newman is a staff writer for Naval Aviation News.
Logbooks Reveal Legacy
As commanding officer of Marine Helicopter Squadron (HMX) 1 from 1971 to 1974, Col. James Perryman Jr. served as President Richard Nixon’s pilot during the bulk of the 37th president’s term. Perryman moved into acquisition in July 1974, weeks before Nixon’s resignation that August.
Prior to his stint as CO, Perryman deployed to Vietnam in 1961 and served two combat tours before joining HMX-1 in 1966 during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency. He returned to Vietnam in 1970 before reporting back to command HMX-1 a year later.
A member of the U.S. Naval Academy’s Class of 1955, Perryman’s flight logs show he flew 614 a handful of times, including two “presidential lift” missions in December 1971. His son, Glenn Perryman, deputy program executive officer for Air Anti-Submarine Warfare, Assault, and Special Mission Programs, said it was “a great feeling” when he heard the Presidential Helicopters Program Office was restoring a helo his father flew.
“As a kid, it was the neatest thing in the world, knowing your dad flew the president,” Glenn Perryman said. “And now, this is kind of like a continuation of my dad’s legacy.”
Perryman died New Year’s Eve 2013 at the age of 80.