“Stop messing with my man, and that includes his ride. Matter of fact, wax that m_______f_______, give it a tuneup.”
—Faizon Love as Jamal Jackson in The Replacements
You’d better sit down for this one.
The Daily Mail reports that the Pentagon has put out a contract to Connecticut-based Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation—makers of the Blackhawk, among other things—to replace Marine One, the helicopter used to transport the President. Why I’m having to get this information from a British news outlet is another article entirely, but that’s not what got my attention.
So what’s the big deal, Rusty? These things do have to be upgraded and replaced from time to time.
Quite true. But here’s the thing: “Marine One” isn’t a specific aircraft, it’s a designation applied to the helicopter the President happens to be on. In other words, there’s more than one such helicopter. Even that in itself isn’t such a big deal, nor is it even particularly surprising. But this is:
The current Presidential helicopter fleet serving as Marine One includes nineteen aircraft.
You read that right. Nineteen.
And no, that’s not “over the years nineteen different helicopters have served as Marine One.” That’s right now, all together, at one time, the President has nineteen different helicopters from which to choose.
That’s enough for Obama, the First Lady, both daughters, the First Dog, and every one of Obama’s golf clubs including his putter (assuming—snicker—he follows the rules and plays with the limit of 14) each to have their own chopper to ride to Martha’s Vineyard this summer. The fleet includes eleven Sikorsky VH-3Ds at an original pricetag of about $6.5 million apiece (about $24 million in today’s dollars), and another eight Sikorsky VH-60Ns at an original price of about $10.6 million ($15.3 million in today’s dollars). Nineteen helicopters with a total sticker price of just over $156 million in nominal dollars, $386 million in today’s money.
I get it that the President has to have transportation and sometimes helicopter is the only practical and efficient way to get it done. I get it that the President’s vehicles should project a sense of national prestige. I get it that they would need specialized security, communications, and other features to enable the President to do his job—were he so inclined—while aboard. And I don’t even begrudge having it decked out with accoutrements and comforts commensurate with the office. You might even be able to justify having more than one, you know, for a backup or decoy.
But nineteen of them?
To put this in a little perspective, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of England has exactly one helicopter, and most royal family travel is via British Airways.
You can add to the nineteen helicopters the two Boeing VC-25s (military versions of the 747) that serve as Air Force One at a cost of $325 million apiece ($685 million in today’s money), and the emergency “doomsday” Boeing E-4B (also a 747, and the Air Force actually has four of them, but I’ll only count one for our Presidential purposes today) that spends almost all its time sitting idle at a purchase price of $223 million (another $322 million in today’s dollars). Oh, yeah, there’s also the $40 million+ Presidential Gulfstream 500 for more pedestrian excursions like taking the wife for a date night fling in NYC. That’s a Presidential air wing of nineteen helicopters and three 747s, totaling about $1.7 billion in current money.
Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection starts to pale in comparison.
To return to the initial subject, the Pentagon is looking to replace the helicopter fleet. But apparently nineteen helicopters isn’t enough—the new contract is for a total of twenty-three new choppers, at an estimated cost of about $400 million . . .
. . . wait for it . . .
. . . APIECE.
That’s right, the Pentagon is not only going replace the Presidential helicopter collection and in the process expand it from 19 to 23, but each one is going to cost more than the 747s that serve as Air Force One. In total, the new Presidential helicopter armada will cost $20 billion. To put that in perspective, USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77)—a freaking nuclear aircraft carrier— commissioned in 2009 only cost $6.2 billion, and she is expected to have a service life of at least 50 years. Hell, even converted to current money, an average Apollo moon landing cost less ($18.5 billion) than this new set of Presidential travel toys.
In fairness, I don’t think this particular excess can be laid on Obama. I expect what you see today is really the culmination of a trend/practice that dates back to at least Nixon, and the latest installment of rotary wing gems won’t enter service until Obama is long gone. But it’s only half of the equation. The other half is the serial abuse of this perk of the office for personal benefit, and that you can squarely lay at Obama’s feet.
Consider that the operating cost of Air Force One is a little over $220,000 per flight hour. That’s just the airplane, and does not factor in the hoardes of security personnel, motorcades and associated transportation—all those armor-plated SUVs have to be flown to destination in a C-130—etc. that go with Presidential travel. I could not find operating cost information for Marine One, but we can see that, for example, the VH-3D (the Presidential version of the “Sea King”) consumes on average about 1,050 pounds (about 156 gallons) of fuel per hour (not exactly “green”); at an average of $6.50 per gallon in the D.C. area, that’s just over $1,000 an hour just in gas. The bottom line is, it’s really, really expensive to travel in these things.
With that expense in mind, think about what this President has been doing. Since his re-election—in other words, since the time he no longer had another election to worry about ever again—the President has attended at least 45 Democrat Party fundraisers, many in places like L.A., Chicago, New York, and Houston. He is committed to at least 18 such events in 2014 alone. He and his entourage fly to all these things on the public dime.
The Obamas’ fetish for impossibly lavish (and frequent) vacations is well-documented. But recall that part of that practice is their habit of flying separately. They have even been known to enlist a separate flight for their dog to join them. But even traveling together, the cost is enormous. For example, their annual end-of-year sojourn to Hawaii involves about 19 hours round trip flight time, meaning the First Family air bill alone is well over $4 million.
As Judicial Watch has chronicled–and had to fight tooth and nail in the federal courts to obtain the relevant documents–there have been Presidential golf weekends in places like Palm Springs, Key Largo, and West Palm Beach, again involving millions of public dollars in travel expenses. There have of course been the First Lady’s (and daughters’) separate trips to Spain, Africa, China, Aspen. There have been the dubious “official” trips to places like Dublin and Copenhagen. And on and on.
All of these things cost money. A lot of money. Between the gigantic fleet and its insatiable operating costs, we are now spending literally billions of dollars ferrying the Chief Executive and his family—and all the attendant security, staff, hangers-on, posse, etc.—all over the planet. Some of that travel is legitimate. And I don’t even begrudge the occasional boondoggle—if the G-8 is meeting in Paris and you want to save a seat on Air Force One so the First Lady can fly over and tour the Louvre, that’s not a big deal.
But way too much of what we now see—and pay for—is plainly not legitimate travel necessary as part of the President’s job as an employee of the United States. And the size of the fleet used to do it is unconscionable. Yet there is no adult watching over the candy store. Oh, sure, there are a handful of voices shouting in the wind, but there is no meaningful oversight to say “No, that’s too much.”
We should all be contacting our Congressman to ask for some kind of inquiry into the necessity of having two dozen $400 million helicopters, three 747s, and however many Gulfstreams reserved for Presidential transport, and placing some sort of governing mechanism to police their use at public expense.
Or at least ask for a ride.