MARINE CORPS AIR STATION NEW RIVER, N.C. – A light drizzle cleared just in time for the Marine Corps newest helicopter to land, five hours and one refueling stop from the Palm Beach facility where it was built.
The Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion, arrived a day later than planned because a tropical storm warning kept the helicopter grounded in Florida until May 16.
The first of about 200 CH-53Ks touched down at New River and taxied past several V-22 Ospreys before coming to a stop in front of a Vietnam-era CH53E Super Stallion it eventually will replace. A second aircraft is scheduled for delivery in early 2019.
“It is a big beast of an aerodynamic machine,” said Maj. Fred Neubert, one of the Marine Corps CH-53K developmental test pilots that flew the aircraft from Palm Beach to Naval Station Mayport, Florida, and on to North Carolina.
Now the largest single-rotor helicopter in the U.S. military, the King Stallion also improves upon its predecessor in almost every conceivable way. It has greater range, speed and lift capacity than any previous CH-53 variant. One Sikorsky engineer told Defense Daily that a single one of its three 7,500 shaft-horsepower General Electric [GE] GE38 engines is more powerful than both engines of a CH-53A combined when it first flew in 1974.
“There’s very little metal in that aircraft,” the engineer, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said on the tarmac at New River. Most of the airframe is made from carbon fiber, as are the new composite rotorblades.
Those materials allowed developers to reduce the gross weight of the aircraft, widen the interior cabin and integrate greater fuel capacity into the aircraft where the 53E has to carry exterior drop tanks.
Perhaps the most significant operational improvement is the inclusion of an all-glass digital cockpit and fly-by-wire controls.
“I can sit there with my hands in my lap, dial in how I want the helicopter to fly and it takes over for you,” Neubert said. “It’s still a helicopter, but unlike any helicopter I’ve flown. It’s really incredible how capable it is.”
Neubert said the controls have been tested in the mid-range of the aircraft’s operational envelope. Now it’s off for more testing so that envelope can be steadily, but deliberately widened until the aircraft has flow in its “upper modes,” Neubert said.
So far, the 53K has flown with a maximum weight single-point cargo hook sling load of 36,000 pounds, performed forward flight speed of over 200 knots, pulled 60-degree angle bank turns flown at over of 18,500 feet altitude, 12-degree slope landings and takeoffs, external load auto-jettison and and gunfire testing. Initial operational capability is scheduled for 2019.
The aircraft recently made its international debut by demonstrating its flight capability and fly-by-wire controls at the ILA Berlin Air Show in Germany.
Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 21 (HX-21), which is responsible for developmental testing of rotary wing, tiltrotor, avionics and unmanned aircraft for both the Navy and Marine Corps now takes the CH-53K through a supportability test plan.
Marine Corps pilots will conduct a logistics assessment to lay out the plan for operation and maintenance of the aircraft once it enters service in larger numbers. Maintainers will get hands-on experience with the helicopter so they can understand and establish maintenance procedures for supporting the fleet, as well.
The CH-53K’s self-diagnostic maintenance systems make taking care of the aircraft much more efficient. Instead of maintaining the aircraft according to a fixed schedule, or fixing it when something breaks, the system allows the transition to “condition-based maintenance” and replacement of parts before they wear out, the engineer said.
This first CH53K heavy lift helicopter will be stationed at Marine Corps Air Station New River in Jacksonville, N.C., but further testing will be done at Yuma, Ariz., where pilots will practice dusty desert landings, Neubert said. Other aircraft will go to sea to undergo onboard ship testing, he said.
Landing in desert terrain where the downwash from the rotorblades can cause brownout conditions is one of the most dangerous maneuvers a pilot can make, but the avionics systems in the CH-53K can be dialed so the aircraft senses the ground and safely hovers at a prescribed altitude, the Sikorsky engineer said.
Once it enters service, the King Stallion will be the largest single-rotor helicopter in the world. It will be able to carry 27,000 pounds of cargo compared to the 9,000 pounds an E-model can carry, effectively tripling the Marine Corps ship-to-shore lift capacity.
All that lift and heft – “beefy” as Neubert also described it – proved difficult to get airborne initially. The King Stallion’s first flight was delayed seven months after the main rotor gear box cracked during ground testing and had to be redesigned. Plans were to fly by the end of 2014 and then pushed to spring 2015 as Sikorsky worked through the issue.
Still, Sikorsky president and former CH-53 pilot Dan Schultz, was bullish about the first delivery and the program moving forward. The company, now owned by Lockheed Martin [LMT], is preparing its manufacturing plant in Stratford, Conn., for 53K production beginning this summer. Another 18 King Stallions are in various stages of production already, according to Schultz.
“Our first delivery of a CH-53K to the Marine Corps marks the start of a new generation of true heavy lift helicopter deliveries by Sikorsky that bring unsurpassed and expanded capability across the modern battlefield to provide tremendous mission flexibility and efficiency in delivering combat power, humanitarian assistance or disaster relief for those in need,” Schultz said in a prepared statement.