The Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) revealed on January 6 that it has retired a historic Sikorsky NVH-3A Sea King, which spent 32 years supporting the development of the US’ presidential helicopter fleet.
The US Navy’s Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 21 (HX-21) ‘Blackjack’ employed the dark-green helicopter – BuNo 150614 – at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland, until it made its final flight in October 2020. Known as ‘614’, the NVH-3A spent the last 32 years as a testbed, trialling new technologies for the US Marine Corps’ (USMC’s) presidential helicopter fleet, which is operated by Marine Helicopter Squadron 1 (HMX-1).
The aircraft rolled off Sikorsky’s production line in 1962 as an HSS-2, before the type was renamed the SH-3A. After a decade of service, ‘614’ was redesignated as a VH-3A and served for four years with HMX-1 as a presidential helicopter, providing transport for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Following this, the aircraft was briefly transferred to the US Navy’s Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 6 (HC-6) ‘Chargers’ before it was placed into storage at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (AFB) in Arizona.
In 1984, ‘614’ was pulled out of storage and underwent a process of depot maintenance before it arrived at the then-Naval Air Test Center (NATC) at NAS Patuxent River in 1988. During which, the Sea King was given the one-of-a-kind designation of NVH-3A. For the next 25 years, ‘614’ was used as a testbed for innovations in avionics, sensors, computer hardware and software, radios, composite rotor blades and more. It was also used to conduct the navy’s first successful demonstration of satellite Wi-Fi in a rotary wing platform.
NVH-3A Sea King ‘614’ was stripped down in 2013 during a cockpit modernisation programme, which was ultimately cancelled before the aircraft was refitted. Instead, the helicopter returned to service as a VH-3D testbed and received a new drivetrain, powerplant, rotors, landing gear and electrical, fuel and avionics systems. The Sea King returned to the skies on April 4, 2017.
Since 2017, ‘614’ has been used to support the development of high-speed rotor, secure wide-band line-of-sight communications technologies, engine shaft track and balance functions, and night vision equipment for the presidential transport mission. The matured Sea King completed its final flight on October 22, 2020 and has been stored in one of HX-21’s hangars since.
Now that the aircraft is retired, it is hoped that it will be preserved in some capacity at NAS Patuxent River. Glenn Perryman, deputy program executive officer for Air Anti-Submarine Warfare, Assault and Special Mission Programs with the US Navy, is one of those who hope that this matured aircraft’s story continues. The Sea King holds a special meaning to him, given that his father – Col James Perryman Jr – served as the commanding officer of HMX-1 from 1971 to 1974 and flew ‘614’ routinely during that time.
Perryman said: “I cannot think of a more symbolic representation of what we do at the Presidential Helicopters Program than aircraft ‘614’. This aircraft gives a full, rich history as both a no-fail mission aircraft that flew Presidents Nixon and Ford, and as a testbed for delivering the newest capabilities to the presidential fleet.
“It seems only fitting that we try and find a place of honour for ‘614’ and its 32 years of service here in front of the Presidential Helicopters Support Facility as a static memorial and display,” he added.