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Marine Helicopter Squadron-1 (HMX-1)

Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1), the Nighthwaks, is the only organization responsible for direct helicopter support of the White House. HMX-1 is the sole helicopter transport squadron for the president of the United States. In addition to Presidential and VIP support HMX-1 maintains the role as the primary Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) unit for Marine assault support helicopters and related equipment. Indeed, the same pilots and aircrew supporting the President are often testing and evaluating aircraft and systems used by the Fleet Marine Forces. HMX-1 aircraft and Marines also support the Marine Corps Combat Development Command in the development of helicopter tactics, techniques and landing force equipment, as well as for student demonstrations and helicopter indoctrination.

HMX-1's greatest distinction may be its special place in history as the first US Marine Corps helicopter squadron ever established. The establishment of HMX-1 at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS), Quantico, Virginia on 1 December 1947 started a revolution in Marine Corps aviation and tactical doctrine. On 23 May 1948, the first airborne ship-to-shore movement began at Onslow Beach, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. The first wave of the assault commenced with all 5 of the squadron's HO3S-1 helicopters taking off from Palau and arriving 30 minutes later in the landing zone. HMX-1 pilots made continuous flights, putting 66 Marines in the right place at the right time. With the helicopter firmly entrenched in Marine warfighting doctrine, HMX-1's mission evolved into developmental testing of new helicopter systems and products destined for the Fleet Marine Force.

In 1957, rotary wing movement of the President, Vice President, and other important personnel originated, as President Dwight D. Eisenhower, away on vacation in Newport, Rhode Island, was urgently needed back at the White House. Typically, a return trip to Washington, DC from Rhode Island required an hour-long ferry ride across Narragansett Bay to the awaiting presidential transport, Air Force One, followed by a 45-minute flight to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, and a 20-minute motorcade ride to the White House. Recognizing the urgent need for his presence in Washington, President Eisenhower directed his aide to find a way to get him to Air Force One more quickly. The aide informed the president that a helicopter was on station in Rhode Island in case of an emergency and could be used to fly him to the awaiting plane. President Eisenhower approved the idea, setting a precedent with the 7 minute trip in a HUS-1 Seahorse helicopter from HMX-1.

Shortly thereafter, the President's naval aide asked HMX-1 to evaluate the possibility of landing a helicopter on the south lawn of the White House. Preliminary evaluations and test flights determined that there was ample room for a safe landing and departure. Once formal procedures were finalized, HMX-1 began flying the president to and from the south lawn of the White House to Andrews Air Force Base, the home of Air Force One. Until 1976, the executive rotary wing mission was shared with the Army. In that year, HMX-1 was designated the sole source of rotary wing support for the President and those other missions tasked by the White House Military Office (WHMO).

Between 1948 and the early 2000s, HMX-1 flew over 273,500 flight hours. Over its history, no mishap has occurred during a Presidential lift mission. Only 3 aircraft had been involved in Class A mishaps since HMX-1 assumed the sole provider role for Presidential support. After 2 aircraft were lost to mechanical failures in the early 1960's, the Squadron went without a Class A mishap for more than the next quarter century. Three Class A mishaps, however, occurred in the 1990s, one each in the VH-3D (FY91), the VH-60N (FY93), and the CH-46E (FY96). Only the first 2 of these aircraft are authorized to transport the President (although he had ridden in CH-46E aircraft at the direction of the WHMO). Only minor injuries occurred in the VH-3D and CH-46E mishaps, and in fact the VH-3D aircraft was repaired and remained in service within Naval aviation. Both of these mishaps occurred on the ground, rather than in flight. The VH-60N was lost, along with its aircrew, as a result of a maintenance error.

As of 1996, HMX-1 had a total of 19 aircraft in the "VH" configuration, which were authorized to transport the President and for tasking by the WHMO. This number included 11 VH-3D and 8 VH-60N airframes. By virtue of the highly controlled and structured missions of both executive transport and emergency evacuation, aircraft configuration was extremely tightly controlled for VH aircraft, and no "non-standard" installations of parts or equipment was permitted. In addition, HMX-1 had PAA of 6 CH-46E's, and 6 CH-53E's. Actual "on-hand" assets by that time included the CH-46E (6 aircraft), CH-53E (4 aircraft), CH-53D (4 aircraft); and UH-1N (one aircraft, which was on loan for operational test and evaluation purposes only). The eventual retirement of the CH-53D assets and the procurement of new CH-53E airframes was ongoing in the early 1990s. Following 1996 operational peak occasioned by the presidential elections, the final CH-53D aircraft was gone from HMX-1.

By the late 1990s, HMX-1 had 3 distinct chains of command, making it unlike any other unit in the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps Deputy Chief of Staff for Aviation issued orders for all tasks that HMX-1 executed in conjunction with Marine Corps activities, while the WHMO directed the squadron's presidential missions. The squadron's Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) Department reported to Commander, Operational Test and Evaluation Force at Norfolk, Virginia. With over 700 personnel assigned, HMX-1 was the largest permanently formed aircraft squadron in the Marine Corps. Accordingly, it incorporated some departments not usually found in a squadron.

As the only aviation unit assigned to MCAF Quantico, HMX-1 also had a dedicated fiscal and aviation supply department, and its safety and standardization department was similar to that found in a composite helicopter squadron with several different types of aircraft. The major divisions within the unit were: Administration, Operations, Logistics, Safety & Standardization, White House Liaison Office, Executive Alert Facility, Plans, Security, Communications, Fiscal, Aviation Supply, Operational Test & Evaluation, Whiteside and Greenside. HMX-1 responded directly to the WHMO for Distinguished Visitor (DV) Code 1 and Code 2 helicopter support taskings. HMX-1 did not have secondary tasking authority. If it required fixed wing or helicopter general support aircraft as it carried out its direct support tasking, it requested that support from WHMO. WHMO procedures were to pass such secondary taskings to appropriate authorities in the Department of Defense.

HMX also had 2 separate and distinct maintenance departments. The first was the Executive Flight Detachment, also known as the "Whiteside," a reference to the paint scheme for the tops of Presidential support aircraft ("white tops") or a reference to the fact that all assets and materiel were kept within the confines of a high fence, with no unauthorized access permitted. The Whiteside simply stated, supported aircraft dedicated to White House Mission. The second was the Marine Corps Aircraft Maintenance, commonly known within the squadron as the "Greenside," a reference to the aircraft paint scheme again or a reference to a cargo or "Stake" trucks. These were the "no frills" fleet aircraft which were assigned to HMX-1 and which flew in support, testing, and transport roles other than executive lift.

Squadron manpower policies and procedures were keyed to the most demanding and important missions of Executive Helicopter Transport and Contingency Support. The most qualified personnel available, officer and enlisted, were assigned to billets that directly supported these 2 primary tasks. No matter where assigned, all Marines associated with these missions had to obtain both a Top Secret clearance through a Defense Investigative Service Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) and Yankee White Access through approval by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. These clearance requirements could take up to a year to complete, had high standards for approval, and influenced personnel assignment at HMX-1 more than any other fact. In the mid-1990s approximately 15-20 percent of assigned personnel were unable to obtain the ultimately required "Yankee White" Clearance from the WHMO and the Department of the Navy. Those who could not be cleared for "Yankee White" access had to remain on the Greenside. This impacted the normal flow of personnel between the Greenside and the Whiteside.

After initial field screening of personnel, a clearance package was developed and submitted to the Defense Investigative Service, which conducts the SSBI required for Top Secret clearance. The completed SSBI was submitted to the Department of the Navy Central Adjudication Facility, which granted the Top Secret clearance. The approved package was then returned to HMX-1 Security for review and recommendations for Yankee White access. After a positive recommendation, the package was forwarded to the Secretary of the Navy White House Liaison Office, where a final review was conducted, and then to the Office of the Secretary of Defense for final Yankee White access approval. This entire process took from 6 months to a year and, once begun, delays were rare.

To provide the necessary "cleared" manpower base, every Marine assigned to HMX-1 had to be prepared to eventually occupy a billet associated with Executive missions and, in reality, most billets in the squadron had some degree of association with those missions. Individuals who failed to qualify for a Top Secret or Yankee White clearance while assigned to HMX-1, or those whose clearances are revoked, could not be assigned to most billets in the unit and, as a result, effectively decreased the personnel base on which the squadron depended.

Specific Military Occupational Specialties (MOSs) did not exist for the VH-3D since the training was done by a contractor, rather than the military. Personnel who were assigned to operate and maintain the VH-3D were selected from the population of regular marine forces aviation personnel and had no previous experience on the platform.

During Presidential support missions, HMX-1 often required Air Mobility Command (AMC) fixed wing support, the Phoenix Banner missions. For overseas Presidential trips, HMX-1 flew VH-3D or VH-60N helicopters to Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland where C-5 strategic airlifters could transport them to a forward operating base. Up to 3 aircraft could be lifted in a C-5B. For such long distance missions, HMX-1 would also require airlift for its logistics and personnel. Fixed wing support normally entailed flights to and from military air bases or civil airports with major runways and substantial ground support facilities, including instrument flight navigation aids. At the forward operating base, helicopters transported by C-5B had to be reassembled and conduct post-maintenance inspection flights, as well as a 5 hours "penalty" flight to ensure safe materiel condition. At all forward bases, helicopters tasked for actual missions must conduct exact rehearsals one day prior to the Presidential lift.

In addition to its executive transport and OT&E missions, HMX-1 also supported the Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC) at Marine Corps Air Facility (MCAF), Quantico in the development of helicopter tactics and techniques. HMX-1's CH-46Es and CH-53Es provided helicopter indoctrination training for new combat ground Marines and support advanced training, such as fast-roping exercises. MCCDC maintained a training facility called "Combat Town," where HMX-1 Marines participated in the training of assault troops in hostage rescue scenarios.

In the mid-2000s, work had been done on a program to develop and procure a replacement for the VH-3D and VH-60N aircraft operated by HMX-1. This program subsequently selected a variant of the Augsta-Westland AW101 helicopter, which was given the tentative designation VH-71A. A total of 23 VH-71A were expected to be procured. The decision to procure the replacement helicopter was subsequently reversed and the program was terminated on 1 June 2009.

On 4 May 2013, HMX-1 hosted an induction ceremony for 6 MV-22B Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. The aircraft had arrived in the previous week and the ceremony marked the beginning of HMX-1's transition from the CH-46E to the MV-22B Ospreys for green-side and presidential support flights (the latter involving carrying White House staff members and press). Though the aircraft would begin supporting the troops of Officer Candidates School and The Basic School immediately, filling the presidential support role was scheduled to begin late in 2013 or in early 2014. Prior to this, HMX-1 had operated a single MV-22B, primarily for test purposes. By mid-2014, HMX-1 expected to have a total of 12 MV-22B aircraft and to have completely retired the CH-46E aircraft.

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Page last modified: 06-05-2013 14:15:24 ZULU