Pablo Martinez Monsivais  /  AP file
Stratford, Conn.-based Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. has been building versions of Marine One for nearly 50 years.
updated 3/26/2004 3:22:31 PM ET 2004-03-26T20:22:31

Ever since the Eisenhower Administration, American Presidents have made their grand entrances on the south lawn of the White House in a green helicopter called Marine One. Stratford, Conn.-based Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. has been building versions of that chopper for nearly 50 years and expected to make its replacement, due in 2008. There's just one problem: For the first time, Sikorsky has a rival, in the form of the Anglo-Italian firm AgustaWestland.

That's an awkward choice for the Bush Administration. On one side is U.S. icon Sikorsky, whose longtime lobbyist is Charles R. Black; he happens to be an adviser to President George W. Bush's campaign. On the other is AgustaWestland, whose biggest boosters are British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi; they happen to be Bush's two closest foreign allies.

Making the decision more excruciating: Both birds are considered more than adequate to carry the Passenger-in-Chief. Says aerospace analyst Richard L. Aboulafia of the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va.: "There's no obvious technical winner." No wonder the Navy on Mar. 23 postponed a decision that had been expected in May. Though the Navy says it needs more time to weigh the choices, some suspect the Administration wants to avoid the decision until after the election.

The stakes are huge. The Marine One fleet now consists of 20 choppers, which ferry visiting foreign dignitaries as well as the President. The new fleet will comprise 23 birds; the winner of the $1.7 billion contract for three prototypes and five operational choppers will get to build the rest and maintain them for a total of $7 billion. And the Presidential imprimatur could help the winner sell at least 200 more military choppers, worth $15 billion.

That's why both rivals are pulling out the stops to make their bids more attractive. Sikorsky is pushing its prototype, the VH-92 Superhawk, as a "Buy America" move that would save several hundred jobs. With its Comanche helicopter program recently canceled, the company is hungry for the contract. "It's win or drop dead," says George David, chairman of United Technologies Corp., Sikorsky's parent. To bolster its chances, Sikorsky is emphasizing its experience and draping itself in the flag. It argues that the President would be more secure in a home-built chopper than in one built by potentially unreliable foreign suppliers.

Birds of a feather
AgustaWestland has countered by vowing to create 1,000 jobs in the U.S. The company -- a joint venture between the state-controlled Italian industrial concern Finmeccania and the British automotive-aerospace company GKN PLC -- has lined up Lockheed Martin Corp. to head its team. Fort Worth-based Bell Helicopter Textron would build the bird, known as the U.S. 101. AgustaWestland also notes that while Sikorsky's prototype boasts fewer than 3,000 flying hours, the U.S. 101, already in production, has logged 50,000. What's more, says AgustaWestland, the U.S. 101 has three engines, compared with the Superhawk's two, and a larger cabin.

But elbow room may count for less than politics. While lobbyist Black won't say if he has broached the issue with Bush, sources say Blair and Berlusconi have. "We're loyal allies," says Keith Hayward of the Society of British Aerospace Cos. "Petty nationalism shouldn't have a role in this decision." If the AgustaWestland team loses, it would bolster forces in Italy that argue Rome should have aligned itself with Paris and Bonn. And it could crush European hopes that transatlantic defense deals would finally be a two-way street.

The maneuvering will go on for months. All anybody knows is that come 2008, a new Marine One is scheduled to take off from the White House lawn. Long before that, some of President Bush's closest pals are going to be unhappy. The question is, which ones?

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