WASHINGTON, Aug. 29 -- Citing safety concerns, the Marine Corps grounded six White House helicopters used to ferry Secret Service, White House staff and journalists in a general order last week that suspended flights of more than 400 aircraft.
The most significant of the groundings was that of the 168 CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters. A CH-53E crashed Aug. 10 in a still-unexplained training accident that claimed the lives of four Navy crew members off Corpus Christi, Texas.
The White House has six of these Super Stallions in its executive air fleet, although the president never flies aboard these helicopters, according to the Marine Corps. He flies on Marine One, either a VH-60 Black Hawk or a VH-3 Sea King.
"The suspension of flight operations will not hinder (the Marine Corps') ability to supply support to the White House because they have other assets to employ," stated Lt. David Nevers, a Marine spokesman.
A Defense Department official said in an interview Monday that preliminary results from the accident investigation indicate the helicopter may have suffered from a faulty swash plate duplex bearing, a part that gives the pilot control over the main rotor.
The same flawed part was responsible for a fatal crash in 1996 of a CH-53E on its maiden flight. It was bound for the White House fleet.
That accident killed four people -- employees of manufacturer Sikorsky -- and triggered a similar grounding order affecting the entire fleet of 154 Super Stallions and 45 Sea Stallions
The faulty bearing was inspected and replaced on almost 200 CH-53 helicopters at a cost of $30 million to Sikorsky.
A federal grand jury has been investigating criminal wrongdoing in the 1996 accident for almost four years, according to Kaydon Corp., which manufactured the part blamed for the crash.
A Navy investigation determined that there were irregularities and cracks in the chromium plating applied to the bearings to inhibit corrosion. Armology of DeKalb, Ill, applied the plating, according to 1996 press reports.
Sikorsky and Kaydon remain locked in a court battle over the matter, with Sikorsky alleging that Kaydon falsified inspection documents. That case, still in the discovery phase, could go to trial in 2001, according to Kaydon's 1999 annual report, published in March 2000.
Kaydon has filed a counter suit alleging Sikorsky did not install the bearing properly.
Kaydon reached out-of-court settlements with the families of the four victims in the 1996 crash.
The CH-53E is the largest helicopter in the western world, with a maximum gross weight of 73,500 pounds. The CH-53E is the only helicopter capable of lifting some of the new weapon systems in the Marine Corps, including the M-198 Howitzer and the variations of the new Light Armored Vehicle.
The Marine Corps plans to ultimately replace all White House helicopters including the CH-53E with the MV-22, an aircraft also grounded in the Aug. 25 suspension of flights order.
The MV-22 Osprey is an airplane that uses rotors on its wings to take off and land like a helicopter. This is at least its second grounding order for safety checks this year. An Osprey crashed during a training exercise in April, killing all 19 of its passengers.