The Inside Scoop on Marine One

Why the “white tops” got painted white, and what exactly is a “Weelo”

A VH-60 White Hawk of the Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1) flies over the Potomac.

In the early 1990s, during the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Colonel Ray “Frenchy” L’Heureux was a young officer in Marine Helicopter Squadron One, the Quantico, Virginia-based unit that ferries U.S. presidents around the world. L’Heureux returned to HMX-1 as its commanding officer in 2006, becoming the Presidential Helicopter Pilot first for George W. Bush, then Barack Obama. In his new book Inside Marine One, co-authored with Lee Kelley, L’Heureux talks about—among other things—the paint scheme on the iconic helicopter:

Since 1947, HMX-1 has supported 11 presidents and their staffs in more than 33 countries, averaging 10,000 flight hours each year. All of this has been done in close coordination with Sikorsky [the helicopter manufacturer]. At one point, an engineer named Harry Asbury noticed that some commercial airlines were painting the tops of their aircraft white to reduce the temperature of the interiors. Rumor has it that the paint upset the [HMX-1] pilots and maintenance crews, since it created a lot of extra work and didn’t even have a significant impact on the temperature in the cabin. Nevertheless, the “white tops” have persisted, becoming the trademark of Marine One for more than five decades. 

L’Heureux describes the organizational structure of the squadron:

From the perspective of the pilots, HMX-1 is set up like a college: you start out as a “freshman” and work your way up to a “senior” during your four-year tour of duty. For the first year or so, pilots typically serve as Helicopter Aircraft Commander for support aircraft and as copilot for those aircraft during actual Presidential lifts. In the second year, pilots complete training to become copilots on Marine One.

For the last two years of the tour, pilots pretty much end up in one of three categories, each one smaller than the last. The first category includes the majority of the pilots who are assigned to a supporting role, doing test and evaluation or training missions. The next category is a little smaller, and fewer than 10 of the 70 pilots are selected to serve as White House Liaison Officers (WHLOs), pronounced “Weelos.” WHLOs coordinate directly with the White House Communications Office, the Secret Service, the HMX-1 Commander, and other agencies and individuals involved in planning and preparation of the President’s movements. The smallest group of pilots in HMX-1 were the four individuals selected by the Commander to fly the President in [the Commander’s] absence, or when the logistics of travel made it impossible to keep pace with Air Force One around the globe, or simply to fly the other white tops during each Presidential lift. 

L’Heureux covers a lot more in his book, including playing “wolleyball” with President George H.W. Bush and the hazards of mountainbiking with George W. Bush. (Note to self: Should President Bush extend a mountainbiking invitation, run. Run like the wind.)

The helicopters flown by HMX-1 are soon to get an upgrade. Sikorsky has been awarded a $1.24 billion contract to build six new helicopters based on the S-92, which are expected to enter service in 2023.


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