By ROB SIMMONS and JAMES P. HOFFA
The level of security surrounding President Bush's January inaugural was unprecedented. Employing about 6,000 law enforcement officials, the first swearing-in since 9/11 included harbor patrols, canine bomb teams, an expanded no-fly zone around Washington, D.C., rooftop snipers and a host of other stringent measures.
It's interesting that only days later, government officials announced that future U.S. presidents will fly in a foreign helicopter less capable, less secure and less safe than an American-made alternative.
On Jan. 28, the Navy said it would award a $7.1 billion contract for 23 Marine One helicopters to Italian-British consortium AgustaWestland. In its decision, the Navy overlooked Connecticut-based Sikorsky and its Teamster-built H-92, the world's safest and most advanced medium-lift helicopter.
By the Navy's own accounting, Sikorsky's H-92 is "clearly the better performing helicopter." It tops the EH-101 in most categories, including range and airspeed -- important considerations in this age of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft rockets.
Other design advantages make the H-92 a safer model. It has superior crashworthiness, the ability to weather a tough landing and an external fuel system that prevents crash fires. In fact, the H-92 is the first and only rotorcraft to have met the Federal Aviation Administration's latest and most stringent safety standards.
By comparison, AgustaWestland's track record is alarming. Most of the British navy's EH-101s remain grounded after a March 2004 crash. Caused by cracks in the helicopter's tail rotor, the wreck injured all five crew members aboard. The Canadian air force found the EH-101 equally unreliable in 2004, grounding its fleet on three separate occasions over safety concerns that included fuel-line leaks.
Common sense dictates that safety should be the largest factor when choosing the president's helicopter. Amazingly, though, cabin size had equal weight in the Navy's selection process, as if extra leg room and cup holders trump reliability. We are entrusting the safety of the president for the next 30 years to an inferior helicopter because it is 24 inches wider than the safer choice.
Equally disturbing, the Navy appears to have ignored key security considerations. An airborne Oval Office, the H-92's integrated communications system can establish simultaneous secure global telephone, data and video connections for passengers in flight. Sikorsky's workers and parts are all-American, so there is minimal risk of this technology leaking to potential adversaries.
AgustaWestland cannot say the same. The company recently sold the Chinese military attack-helicopter technology that could be used against American forces in a crisis. Such defense cooperation with Beijing looks to increase when the European Union lifts its arms embargo against China this summer.
Perhaps most offensive about the decision to reward AgustaWestland with the Marine One contract is Europe's unwillingness to give American helicopters a fair shake across the Atlantic. Collectively, the governments of Europe chose homegrown companies in 11 straight helicopter competitions; and over a decade, they have awarded 93 percent of all orders to European competitors. Italy, the home of AgustaWestland's headquarters, refuses to buy foreign-made helicopters as a matter of policy.
Naively, we are rewarding this practice with a prestigious contract that Connecticut workers have executed with skill since 1957. In doing so, we are turning our backs on the Sikorsky Teamsters who have flawlessly protected every U.S. president since Eisenhower.
Giving the Marine One contract to a European company that will make a less capable, secure and safe helicopter is a mistake. At risk is not only the safety of the first family, but also the well-being of U.S. defense workers and the broader U.S. aerospace industry -- one struggling against unfairly subsidized European competitors.
The president isn't the only American in danger of crashing if AgustaWestland builds the next Marine One helicopter.
X Simmons, R-Conn., is a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Hoffa is the general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service