It’s all but impossible to miss news of a United States Presidential visit to the United Kingdom, or indeed to any country – the event is always marked with significant pomp and circumstance, as befits the reception of a foreign Head of State. What normally does go unnoticed is the huge level of logistical support from personnel across the branches of the United States Military and civil services in order to make this happen. Of these, the most interesting for aviation enthusiasts is likely Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1) – the “Nighthawks”. The chances to see these elite aviators in the UK is rare, but HMX-1 are currently deployed at RAF Mildenhall in support of President Barack Obama’s visit over the weekend of 23-24th April 2016.

HMX-1 History

HMX-1 were formed in 1947 at Quantico in Virginia as an experimental squadron to examine the use of helicopters within the United States Marine Corps. It is entirely likely that HMX-1 would have remained an experimental or operational helicopter squadron, but for their chance assistance to President Dwight D Eisenhower in 1957. Eisenhower was on vacation at Newport, Rhode Island when an urgent requirement came up for him to return immediately to the White House. The conventional way saw a one hour ferry ride to Air Force One, followed by a 45 minute flight to the 89th Airlift Wing’s home base at Andrews AFB, Maryland. Instead, an HMX-1 UH-34 was flown to the Naval Warfare College at Newport, and replaced the one hour ferry ride with a 6 minute helicopter flight.

Thus, the role of HMX-1 was moved to support Presidential airlift, where it has since remained. HMX-1 helicopters follow the President around the world, providing rapid airlift support as either a compliment or replacement to motor cavalcade. Currently HMX-1 have 12 VH-3Ds, 8 VH-60Ns and 12 MV-22B Ospreys on strength.

HMX-1 at Mildenhall

HMX-1 last deployed to RAF Mildenhall in 2011, again in support of President Obama during his State visit in May of that year. At that time, the unit was still equipped with the venerable CH-46E Sea Knight and three examples of that type (157680, 157682 and 157683) were present. The CH-46E was used in the support role, carrying the many advisors, staff and media representatives that follow the US President wherever he travels.

Since that time, the CH-46 has been phased out from United States Marine Corps service – and that extends to the retirement of the HMX-1 examples. As with their front line fleet siblings, the HMX-1 CH-46s have been replaced by the MV-22B Osprey. 2016 marks the first deployment of HMX-1 MV-22Bs to RAF Mildenhall, having arrived from Lajes Field on 15th April, supported by three USMC KC-130Js. The type previously deployed to the UK in August 2014 and supported the arrival of President Obama at RAF Fairford. The MV-22Bs fill exactly the same role as their CH-46E predecessor, but offer significant range and speed advantages over the older Sea Knight – especially key for the complex logistical plans that come as standard with the presidential airlift task.  The three aircraft deploying to Mildenhall in April 2016 are 168284/02, 168332/10 and 168339/12, and all three are in the standard olive green colours worn by the type. Since arrival the three MV-22Bs have been marked with a single digit code corresponding to their callsign (i.e – 168284 flew as “Nighthawk 3” and therefore carries the code “3” on the starboard sponson).

The most famous of the HMX-1 fleet is the helicopter synonymous with the callsign “Marine One” – the Sikorsky VH-3D Sea King. These venerable machines are frequently seen in news broadcasts landing on the lawn of the White House, and act as the presidential transport when a helicopter service is required. Back in 2011, two examples (159352 and 159355) were present and the same is true this time round, with VH-3Ds 159352 and 159356 returning to conduct the “Marine One” role. The VH-3D has been in service since 1978, when it began replacing the older VH-3A models (and was supplemented by the VH-60N from 1987), but the out of service date for these iconic helicopters is fast approaching.

A replacement program for the VH-3Ds has been on the cards since the tightening of security following the 9/11 attacks. The required upgrades to the airframe were deemed to be unfeasible due to the already significant modifications made from the baseline Sea King model. The replacement program was initially awarded to Lockheed Martin, working to redesign the AW101 Merlin into the VH-71 Kestrel specification. However, cost overrun caused the program to be cancelled in 2009 when the overall price had spiralled northward of $13 Billion. In 2014, Sikorsky were awarded the new contract to replace the VH-3D, and will fulfil the requirement using the VH-92A – with the first flight of an S-92 in that configuration expected during 2017. The days of the VH-3D are therefore numbered, and this is likely to be one of the final times they are seen in the UK. The VH-92A is expected to enter service in 2020, and will replace both the VH-3D and VH-60N in the presidential airlift role.

The photographs accompanying this article were taken on April 19th, when all six HMX-1 helicopters performed a rehearsal of their task – the five at RAF Mildenhall joining the VH-60N from RAF Northolt en route. As has happened in previous years, a pair of Metropolitan Police Air Service helicopters (Eurocopter EC145s G-MPSA and G-MPSB, flying as “Police 251”) flew escort and guidance for the formation, having arrived earlier in the morning.

As HMX-1 were not carrying the President, the “Marine One” callsign was not used – instead the formation used “Nighthawk 1-5” as their callsigns (Nighthawk is the Squadron nickname for HMX-1). Departing just before 1400L from Mildenhall’s Runway 29, the formation headed south to Stansted – where they will meet President Obama following his arrival in the UK. After familiarizing themselves with the airport, the Nighthawks continued down to London, conducting approaches at both Windsor and the US Ambassadors residence. The VH-60N White Hawk flew from RAF Northolt and returned there on completion of the rehearsal.

Following the UK state visit, the helicopters will move on to support wherever they are next required. The VH-3Ds and VH-60N will depart in the same manner they arrived – folded away and stowed in the back of a C-17A, whilst the MV-22Bs will likely self-deploy onwards. The large overall fleet of HMX-1 provides the ability to “leapfrog” aircraft, such that assets are always available at each location the President travels to.