At CH-53K Unveiling, Marine Corps Officials Optimistic About Program's Future
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — As the Marine Corps rolled out its new cargo helicopter May 5, service leaders vowed they would protect it from the cancelations and scaled-back purchases that have plagued other military rotorcraft programs this year.
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Amos announced the name of the new helicopter — the CH-53K King Stallion — at a ceremony unveiling the first flight test aircraft. The King Stallion, made by Sikorsky, is scheduled to make its inaugural flight later this year and could be fielded as early as 2019.
"I think it's going to give us greater range," he told reporters after the ceremony. "It's going to give us greater lift capacity, so we'll be able to haul more, make less trips and get there more reliably.”
Amos said he was optimistic that there would be no further delays in the program, which was originally structured to field the aircraft in 2015. “There's enough money in the program, even under sequestration,” he said. “I think the program is healthy right now."
The service plans on buying 200 of the new helicopters. "This is the future of heavy lift in the Marine Corps, so there is no appetite to reduce that number or to have the program go away,” said Rear Adm. Cindy Jaynes, the Navy’s program executive officer for air anti-submarine warfare, assault and special mission programs.
The King Stallion was required to have the same dimensions as its predecessor, the CH-53E Super Stallion, which is also manufactured by Sikorsky, said Col. Robert Pridgen, heavy lift helicopter program manager. Beyond that, it’s a clean-sheet design, he said.
The new “Kilo” helicopter can carry a 27,000-pound sling load — the size of two up-armored Humvees — a feat that triples the 8,000 maximum external load of the Super Stallion, according to Sikorsky information. The CH-53K will be able to carry loads from ship to shore over a distance of 110 nautical miles, loiter for 30 minutes, and then return. It also will be able to fly in higher and hotter environments — up to 3,000 feet in 91 degree Fahrenheit weather.
CH-53K development continues to make progress even as bad news plagues other helicopter programs. Budget constraints have left the Army unable to buy a new reconnaissance helicopter or even to maintain its old ones. The Navy announced its plan to pare down its purchase of SH-60R Seahawks in accordance with cuts to the littoral combat ship program — a plan that will incur the service a penalty for reneging on its multi-year contract deal with Sikorsky. Programs that have not been subject to cuts, like the Apache and Black Hawk, are seeing procurement stretched over a longer period.
Still, the CH-53K program is undergoing delays in its near-term goals, although Pridgen believes it will be able to start low rate initial production in fiscal year 2017 and initial operating capability in 2019, he said. The service originally planned to hold its first flight in the summer 2014, but a cracked gearbox caused it to be rescheduled for later this year.
Mike Torok, Sikorsky’s CH-53K program vice president, said the company has not altered the design of the gearbox, but has changed the process of making it. The four gearboxes currently are going through testing, and "if we find anything else, we'll roll up a correction later on,” he said.
The team is conscious that any further delays could affect suppliers, especially small businesses, Pridgen said. “There is one that we have to pay close attention to, and that's something we do jointly with Sikorsky, and [with] our major suppliers like [General Electric]. We go out and say, who is at risk? Who is it out there who is really feeling this? ... Are there things that we can do to keep them going through this delayed procurement?"
The Marine Corps is also trying to keep the program as close to its budget as possible. It has increased by less than 5 percent since its baseline was rewritten in 2009, he said.
Among the greatest improvements in the Kilo is that it will be easier to maintain than the CH-53E, Pridgen said. “You had to be nearly a gymnast to work on certain parts of the [Echo] aircraft,” so the King Stallion was designed to make it easier for maintainers to access oil filters, pumps and ports, and to remove seats.
The aircraft contains three new T408 engines built by GE Aviation that provide 57 percent more power with 20 percent lower fuel consumption, according to Sikorsky information.
The engines have one-third fewer parts than the CH-53E’s T64 engines, Pridgen said. “The fewer parts that are moving, the fewer parts that break.”
Amos cited other features that he believes will be transformational, including the addition of fly-by-wire technology, incorporation of composite materials into the airframe, and a new glass cockpit.
"You get in there in a glass cockpit and everything is digital,” he said. "Information flows into that cockpit from the battlefield, and it will be able to assimilate all of that."
In the lead up to its first flight, Sikorsky in April began conducting tests on a full-sized, non-flying vehicle prototype to put the airframe through its paces. The two year-test period will allow Sikorsky to evaluate the helicopter’s dynamic components, including the rotor blades, transmission, engines and subsystems.
This aircraft, called the ground test vehicle, has so far clocked 10 hours of testing, said John Amsden, Sikorsky’s manager of ground test vehicle operations. It will complete 250 hours before its first flight, with testing picking up to about 10 hours a day this fall, he said. After the aircraft completes its full 900-hours of ground testing, it will be sent to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California to be shot up in live fire testing.