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Patriotism drives copter competition

New bird sought for White House

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- Designers say it flies faster, farther, and smoother. Pilots say the latest collision-avoidance systems in the all-digital cockpit make it the safest in the air.

Then there is the wood-paneled cabin, soft leather seats, on-board galley, executive bathroom, and a bank of television screens, satellite links, and video conferencing equipment.

If it sounds like a helicopter fit for a president, that is because the VH-92 Superhawk is one of two new aircraft competing for a $1.6 billion contract to replace an aging fleet of presidential choppers.

"It has everything the president needs to have an Oval Office in the sky," said Joe Haddock, vice president for government business at Sikorsky Aircraft, the United Technologies Corp. unit that designed the Superhawk with Rockwell Collins Inc.

The Superhawk's cutting-edge avionics include eye-level glass displays that allow pilots to keep their eyes on the horizon while tracking flight data.

For security reasons, the demonstration model lacks some items featured in the real thing. But executives said the demo provides a glimpse of the latest technology available to the United States.

The Pentagon is also considering a rival aircraft, Lockheed Martin Corp.'s US101, for the contract to replace 19 Sikorsky Sea King helicopters, some dating from 1974, with 23 new ones by 2008. A decision is expected in December.

The US101 is tailored after a model built by Lockheed partner AgustaWestland, a British-Italian consortium that supplies choppers to the British Navy.

Both sides say they have the best craft for ferrying the president and teams of advisers in the post-Sept. 11 era of heightened security.

Steve Ramsey, vice president for Lockheed Martin's US101 project, said the US101 is as fast as the VH-92, but is bigger, wider, and has more cabin space.

But Sikorsky, which has supplied US presidents with helicopters since 1957, has also used Lockheed Martin's overseas ties to frame the contest as a test of corporate patriotism.

Presidential helicopters, referred to as Marine One when the president is aboard, are stationed at military bases across the country to ferry the president on short trips of 150 miles or less. For longer trips, the president flies aboard Air Force One.

The VH-92 can cruise at 175 miles per hour, officials said. A network of six rotors is strategically positioned along the helicopter to cancel vibration from the rotors and other moving parts, allowing passengers to converse without shouting.

New technology was also used to make the dashboard less cluttered and more user-friendly. Five easy-to-read liquid crystal displays replace the bank of circular gauges found in most older dashboards. At the push of a button, pilots can call up flight data, local maps, and weather patterns or warnings in a variety of colors.

Schreder said the VH-92 is also the first helicopter equipped with detailed terrain and situational awareness systems. A bank of sensors collects information about the terrain below and ahead. The information is analyzed with onboard databases to produce video images to aid pilots with navigation in bad weather or landing on uneven surfaces.

The US101 is modeled after AgustaWestland's EH101 Merlin, a chopper that has flown missions over Iraq and Bosnia.

"Sikorsky's is not proven in combat yet," Ramsey said.

In addition to similar advanced avionics, the Lockheed chopper is equipped with warning systems that can help detect oncoming aircraft and send pilots messages for avoiding collision.

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