You Can Buy The State Department’s Totally Upgraded S-61T Helicopters That It Barely Used

The U.S. State Department spent untold millions on refurbishing the second-hand helicopters and now they could be yours on the cheap.

byJoseph Trevithick|
U.S. Homeland photo


If you’re in the market for a baker’s dozen of refurbished Sikorsky S-61T helicopters, the U.S. State Department will happily sell you the ones it has sitting in a hangar in southern Florida. The State Department had originally planned to buy more than 100 of these choppers to move diplomats and other personnel in high-risk areas, such as Afghanistan. Delays and other issues left it with a fleet of less than 20, most of which went straight into storage.

The General Services Administration (GSA) is already auctioning off the first five S-61Ts – with the U.S. civil registration numbers N107WK, N122WU, N375WS, N575AW, and N898WC – each of which has a starting bid price of $500,000. This does not meet an unspecified reserve price for a final sale, though. The State Department plans to sell its remaining fleet of these helicopters, 13 in total, via GSA within six months, according to the Department’s Press Relations Office.

“There is no longer a State Department mission requirement for them,” the State Department told The War Zone in a statement via Email. “These specific aircraft will not be replaced.”

The S-61Ts were refurbished ex-U.S. Navy and NASA SH-3 Sea Kings, which were themselves military variants of the S-61 series. The Sea King has been all but retired from U.S. military service for years now. The U.S. Marine Corps is still using heavily modified VH-3D Sea Kings, more commonly known as Marine Ones, to shuttle around the President of the United States, their family, and their closest advisors, but is planning on replacing them with new VH-92As over the next four years.

A Sikorsky S-61T demonstrator., Sikorsky

The State Department S-61Ts were based on donor airframes that came straight from Navy. That service had retired the bulk of its Sea Kings in the 1990s, but did continue using them in very limited numbers into the late-2000s. The State Department obtained other SH-3s from the Bone Yard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. The very last of Navy's SH-3s had originally rolled off of Sikorsky's production line in the 1970s, though many did receive significant upgrades in the decades that followed. 

Sikorsky developed the S-61T conversion process with Carson Helicopters, which involved a major overhaul of the airframes, as well as the addition of significant upgrades. The updates included a new main rotor assembly with five Carson composite material blades, a glass cockpit, improved avionics and other mission systems, and modular wiring assemblies to rapidly install additional systems per the customer’s request. 

The State Department had agreed to purchase up to 110 S-61Ts when it signed its contract with Sikorsky in 2010. The specific requirements for the Air Wing's helicopters included adding missile approach warning sensors, decoy flare launchers, added armor for the crew, and provisions for door-mounted GAU-17/A Miniguns.

A side-by-side comparison of an older-model SH-3 Sea King or commercial S-61 cockpit, at left, and the glass cockpit found on the S-61T., Carson Helicopters

At the time, the deal, which was potentially worth up to $1.675 billion and also included purchases of a number of refurbished short- and long-fuselage commercial S-61N helicopters with similar upgrades, was seen a major win for the Connecticut-headquartered helicopter maker. The company hoped that the sales to the State Department would help promote the S-61T upgrade package to additional customers, as well.

The exact unit price that the State Department ultimately paid for each of the helicopters it acquired is unclear. Carson had previously upgraded a number of late-model Navy SH-3s with its composite blades and new avionics at a cost of around $3.5 million per chopper. Whatever the case, the cost was undoubtedly significantly higher than the $500,000 starting bid in the current GSA auctions.

The State Department planned for these choppers to primarily support the operations of its Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs’ Office of Aviation, also known as INL/A or the State Department Air Wing, in Afghanistan. To this day, the Air Wing runs a shuttle service called Embassy Air with five-minute flights between Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport and the U.S. Embassy.

The Air Wing, which has more than 200 aircraft and helicopters of various types in total, also performs a number of other missions in Afghanistan, as well as other sites around the world, and runs a similar Embassy Air service in Iraq and Jordan. You can read about these various missions in more detail here and here.

The first S-61T for the State Department makes its maiden flight in 2014. This helicopter, N898WC, is among those that GSA is already auctioning off., Sikorsky

But for reasons that largely remain unclear, the State Department encountered significant delays in acquiring the S-61Ts. In 2013, there were difficulties in getting the improved avionics package, which Sikorsky obtained through Cobham, certified with the Federal Aviation Administration.

That same year, Carson suffered a major scandal when Levi Phillips, its head of maintenance at the time, plead guilty to fraud over an accident in 2008 in which one of its S-61Ns crashed in California, killing a U.S. Forest Service official and seven firefighters.

A Carson Helicopter S-61 with an aerial firefighting conversion dumps its payload of water., Carson Helicopters

The operator’s manual Carson had supplied had false weight and takeoff power data. As part of his plea deal, Philipps subsequently testified against the company’s Vice President, Steven Metheny. In 2015, Metheny went to prison over the crash.

Whatever the exact issues were in acquiring the S-61Ts, by 2014, the State Department had still not taken delivery of a single one of the helicopters, though it had received 16 refurbished S-61Ns. By the next year, the Air Wing had finally obtained 15 S-61Ts, but 10 of them were sitting idle in storage at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. Of the other five, two were flying Air Wing missions from Cyprus, while the other three were deployed in Iraq. To the best of our knowledge, none of them ever went to Afghanistan, though the S-61Ns did.

An Air Wing S-61N circa 2013., US Department of State

“It should be noted that the acquisition of helicopters for Iraq and Afghanistan was not without a documented cost benefit analysis, but options were limited due to time constraints for fielding the aircraft,” INL told the State Department’s Inspector General during an audit of all its aircraft fleets, which came out in September 2018. “It was only later that excess DoD CH-46 aircraft became available and were obtained and employed due to delays in S-61 production and delivery. Once CH-46s were fielded, they proved to be better suited for the Afghanistan environment which led to eventual disposal of the S-61N helicopters.”

The Air Wing's CH-46Es came from the U.S. Marine Corps, which had replaced them with MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors. These helicopters are still in service in Afghanistan, including in the Embassy Air role in Kabul. This also explains why the State Department is divesting them without a direct replacement. It already had helicopters filling the roles the S-61Ts were supposed to perform.

An Air Wing CH-46E in Afghanistan., Dan Stern

However, “the Department is acquiring some used UH-60 helicopters from the Department of Defense to replace other existing aging helicopters that are in service,” State Department’s Press Office noted in its statement. As of September 2018, the Air Wing had 22 Black Hawks, which it had obtained via the U.S. Army’s Black Hawk Exchange and Sales Team program, or BEST. Private companies have also been scooping these up, too. Contractors are working to refurbish and upgrade the Air Wing's UH-60s, as well as those still in Army service, to include things such as glass cockpits and improved avionics, as well.

It will be interesting to see who might be willing to take the remaining S-61Ts off of the State Department’s hands. There are a number of private companies still operating various S-61 series helicopters, including Carson, which could be interested in acquiring the choppers. 

Existing S-61 operators use these choppers to support offshore oil operations, for VIP transport duties, and aerial firefighting, among other jobs. The prospect of acquiring additional, like-new S-61Ts with additional upgrades, could be very attractive, especially if the final sale price remains relatively low. 

If you are interested in picking up any of the former State Department helicopters, you can place bids on any of the five on auction now through April 18, 2019.

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