Sikorsky [UTX] has begun assembly of the CH-53K Helicopter Ground Test Vehicle (GTV) at Sikorsky’s Florida Assembly and Flight Operations (FAFO) facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., progressing towards the system validation test phase of the Heavy Lift Replacement Program. The CH-53K SDD program comprises major subcontracts valued at more than $1.1 billion.

The GTV is the first of five prototype aircraft that will be built at the FAFO facility, under a $3 billion System Development and Demonstration (SDD) contract to develop a heavy lift helicopter replacement for the U.S. Marine Corps CH-53E. When the GTV prototype is assembled, it will undergo ground-flight testing in early 2012. First flight is expected during fiscal year 2014 with a goal of achieving Initial Operational Capability in 2018. The new aircraft program is planned to include production of more than 200 aircraft.

“The main rotor hub and transmission on this new machine weigh 15,000 pounds – as much as a Black Hawk helicopter – and will carry nearly triple the payload of its predecessor, the CH-53E helicopter,” said CH-53K Helicopter Program Manager David Zack.

The CH-53K will maintain virtually the same footprint as the three-engine CH-53E, but will nearly triple the payload to 27,000 pounds over 110 nautical miles under “high hot” ambient conditions. The CH-53E is currently the largest, most powerful marinized helicopter in the world.

The CH-53K’s maximum gross weight (MGW) with internal loads is 74,000 pounds compared to 69,750 pounds for the CH-53E. The CH-53K MGW with external loads is 88,000 pounds as compared to 73,500 for the CH-53E. Other features include: a modern glass cockpit; fly-by-wire flight controls with active inceptors; fourth generation rotor blades with anhedral tips; a low-maintenance elastomeric rotor head; upgraded engines, each delivering in excess of 7,500 shaft horsepower; a locking cargo rail system; three external cargo hooks for improved cargo handling; improved survivability and reliability, maintainability and supportability.