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Helicopters: President buys British, Queen buys American

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The Queen's new helicopter will be supplied by an American company, it has been announced - just as a plan to replace the US President's helicopters with British-made ones seems to be faltering.

In the late '90s the former Queen's Flight of the Royal Air Force was amalgamated with 32 Squadron and the Wessex helicopters formerly used by the royals were retired. 32 Squadron - the UK government's VIP-taxi service - nowadays spends about 20 per cent of its time flying royalty about, in addition to politicians, Whitehall bigwigs and military brass.

32 Squadron has some Italian Agusta A109E choppers, but the Royal Household also operates a helicopter of its own, an American Sikorsky S-76 C+, paid for by the taxpayers. The organisation which runs this helicopter is called the Queen's Helicopter Flight.

On Monday, Sikorsky was pleased to announce that it continues to be preferred supplier of helicopters to HM the Queen, and will deliver an improved, custom-modded chopper in 2009.

"The new S76 C++, which will continue to provide the Royal Family with a helicopter travel service for official engagements, was chosen as... providing the best value and producing the lowest carbon footprint," said Captain Christopher Pittaway, Manager and Chief Pilot of The Queen's Helicopter Flight.

Sikorsky is naturally bathed in gratification.

"We are honoured that the Royal Family... entrust their safety and comfort to us," said Steve Estill, Sikorsky marketing veep.

Meanwhile, plans have been underway for some time now to replace the ageing US Presidential helicopter fleet. Just as the president's jet famously assumes the callsign "Air Force One" when he is aboard, his helicopter - operated by the US Marines - becomes "Marine One".

In 2005, partly-British helicopter maker AgustaWestland was as chuffed as ninepence to announce that it would supply airframes - based on its Merlin military copter of ill repute - for the Marine One requirement.

The $1.7 bn deal, led by US arms behemoth Lockheed, was to see the Merlins heavily kitted out, and apparently this has now led to serious problems. The US Navy, in charge of the purchase, insisted that the helicopters be proofed against nuclear blast and fitted with a communications suite equal to that of the Oval Office, state of the art missile defences, and a 14-person cabin complete with executive bathroom.

Putting all this into a helicopter which doesn't actually have a massive amount of lift - the Royal Navy's new Merlins sometimes can't achieve a hover* - has proved troublesome.

Newsweek will report next week that the Marine One bells'n'whistles package is now nearly a tonne overweight for the Merlin airframe. (RAF Merlins can lift four tonnes.) Getting everything on board, according to the magazine's sources, would mean "essentially designing a new helicopter".

Or just choosing a different one, perhaps. An unnamed industry person told Newsweek that negotiations between the US Navy and Lockheed were back to "zero... I don't know how they can get there."

However, a US Navy spokesman told the mag that there had merely been "misunderstandings" and that talks had now made "significant progress".

Sikorsky, suppliers of whirlybirds to HM the Queen, offer a monstrous heavy-lift chopper - the CH-53, already in service with the US Marines - which can carry approximately four times what a Merlin can.

Maybe the President's helicopter buyers could learn something from the Queen's. ®

*In still airs. Helicopters lose lift when their rotors are beating air which has already been churned up, and Royal Navy Merlins can't hover with their standard combat load of fuel and weapons when this is the case. If there's a wind blowing, however, they can stay stationary above a point on the ground, as they are effectively flying forwards through fresh smooth air.

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