Helicopters of DC


US Marine Corps: HMX-1 Squadron


The most famous and identifiable helicopters over DC, this unit is tasked with Presidential transport and flies Marine One.

Aircraft Type

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First, one often missed nuance: Marine One is the callsign used by any USMC aircraft that the President is on. It’s often associated though with one of the helicopters from the HMX-1 squadron, but the point that’s important to remember is that any one of the helicopters is only considered Marine One when it is transporting the President.

The aircraft of HMX-1 that carry VIPS are green with white along the top, giving them the nickname White Tops.

The classic VH-3 Sea that has long been associated as Marine One is on track to be phased out and replaced by the VH-92 as part of the VXX program.

You’ll often see these aircraft flying in twos or threes. This is to provide decoys for the helicopter that the President is on. On overseas trips with heightened threat concerns, you’ll even see them in groups of four or five for this purpose.

The HMX-1 squadron is primarily composed of helicopters but also includes a set of V-22 Ospreys.

Viewing Tips

There are a few primary times and places you’ll see these helicopters:

1) Loitering over DC - Except for folks in southeast DC, the most common times you’ll see this squadron is when one or two of them together are slowly circling over DC, often going in a slow arc that I’d describe as Florida Ave/U Street Corridor/Dupont Circle and back (though of course, that’s just a very general description of their path). When you see this, it’s usually because another of their squadron is parked on the South Lawn of the White House, with the president soon to depart aboard it. Needless to say, since the president may be on the phone or in an important meeting the helicopter may have to wait a bit until the President is ready to leave. Those other helicopters circling over DC are loitering until it’s time for departure, at which point they (very impressively) time it to join up in formation with Marine One right as the President is taking off. To anyone who wasn’t watching carefully at the moment of takeoff, they would not know which helicopter the President was on.

2) Going to or from Andrews Air Force base - HMX-1 often transports the President between the White Houe and Air Force One. Whereas you may take the metro or a lyft to get to your flight, the President often gets to his flights by way of the three helicopter convoy described above (they will sometimes travel via motorcade instead). When departing the White Houe, the helicopters will fly south over the Mall to the Potomac River, turn east to follow the Anacostia River and then turn south to arrive at Andrews Air Force base, where the President Air Force One will be standing by and ready to take off. As a result of this, anywhere along the Anacostia River is a prime viewing for this occasion.

3) Taking off from the White House - It’s usually hard to see this coming - basically you have to be near the White House Ellipse or Washington Monument at the right time. As mentioned in #1, the helicopter has landed on the South Lawn well in advance of when it will depart. One way to tell that it may happen soon though is when the Secret Service has closed off access to the Ellipse and extended a perimeter of more heavily armed guards around the south of the White House. For instance, if you notice that the area around the First Infantry Division Monument is closed off and the Secret Service guarding it have tote bags that you realize have big guns in them, that’s a good sign that Marine One will be taking off sometime in the near future. In the moments but sometimes minutes before departure, there’ll be a very pronounced loud roar in the area, so if you hear that, keep an eye out for Marine One to take off and the other two to swoop in from the north to join in.

4) Landing at the White House - Needless to say, this happens quickly and takes the form of three helicopters flying north from the Potomac River over the mall, at which point one peels off to land on the South Lawn, while the other two continue north over the White House.

One fun note though is when the President is out of town for a lenghty vacation, the HMX-1 pilots will sometimes take the opportunity to practice taking off and landing - repeating it several times in short succession. Practice does make perfect but this type of practice is best done with the boss isn’t working.

5) Taking off and Landing at Joint Base Bolling - Though headquartered at Marine Corps Base Quantico, a number of the helicopters are also deployed immediately south of the White House, at Joint Base Bolling in southwest DC. Whenever you’re at National Airport, if you look across the river, you’ll see this airbase. Specifically, you’ll see three huge hangers doors to the left of the base. When you see activity in that area, it sometimes involve one or more of the helicopters taking off or landing.


Marine One

Photo Credits