King Stallion Heavy Lift Program On Track for 2019, Say Marines

By Stew Magnuson
When a deadly earthquake struck Nepal in April, the Marine Corps fleet of CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift helicopters remained behind. Scheduled to have wiring work done, they did not make it to the disaster zone.

And that was too bad, said Lt. Gen. Jon M. Davis, Marine Corps deputy commandant of aviation. “It would have been the perfect aircraft for that kind of mission,” he said during a speech on Capitol Hill.

The Echo-models of the Marine Corps’ primary heavy lift helicopter are aging, and routine work to keep them flying must be done as the service awaits the new CH-53K King Stallion, which is scheduled to enter the force in 2019.

“We have been flying the heck out of the aircraft and it’s performing very well for us,” Davis said. “But we have to have that [new] airplane. The 53-Echo won’t last so long.”

In order to fight in two major conflicts simultaneously, the Marine Corps has a requirement to maintain 220 CH-53 heavy lift helicopters. The production line for the Sikorsky-built aircraft went cold in the mid-1990s. During the last 30 years, about 50 of them have crashed leaving the Marines and Navy with 178, according to H-53 Program Manager Col. Hank Vanderborght. Twenty-eight of them are MH-53E Sea Dragons used by the Navy for mine-sweeping missions.

“Every time we crash an aircraft we have a decrease in capability,” he said in an interview. “We’ve been taking a risk inside the Marine Corps for quite some time.”

Both Davis and Vanderborght said the King Stallion is on track to reach initial operational capability in 2019 even if Budget Control Act defense cuts return in 2016. “Right now, we don’t anticipate that it will have much of an impact on the program,” Vanderborght said.

The program of record calls for 200 King Stallions, which will be built by Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.

However, the Echo model will remain in the fleet until about 2032, Vanderborght said. That means keeping it flying and relevant for another 17 years even though it is based on 1970s technology.

The “53-Echo is at this point in its life is probably at the inflection point where reliability is starting to go down because it has been around since the early 80s,” he said. The Marines are currently replacing wiring that is becoming brittle. This is a common and anticipated problem for aging marine aircraft, he said.

The Navy’s MH-53 Sea Dragon should have all that work completed by December. In 2014, a Sea Dragon crashed off the Virginia coast and killed three crew members. The Navy blamed a fuel line that had touched an electric wire. That prompted an inspection of all the 53Es.

Rewiring the remaining Marine Corps helicopters should be completed in the next two years. The service is looking for ways to accelerate the timetable, but that would involve moving money from one budget line to another, he added.

The program is also replacing all the Echo models with General Electric 419 engines. Previously, the Navy minesweepers and Marines’ Super Stallion had different engines. Not only will the 419 provide more power, having a common engine will be more efficient from a logistics point of view, Vanderborght said.

The King Stallion will also have new armor placed in different spots on the airframe. The plating’s placement is based on data on vulnerabilities collected during Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, he said.

The Echo model’s cockpit is little changed from what pilots used in the 1970s, he said. An exception is a new visual display for two sensors — forward-looking infrared radar and blue force tracking. These two relatively new features will be combined into one color display that will also have a rolling map.

Davis said while the possible return of sequestration and its cuts in 2016 won’t effect the expected 2019 debut of the new King model, it could hamper upgrades to the Echos.

“Obviously sequestration would hurt us,” he said. The last round resulted in deep cuts in hours for depot workers. Across the entire Marine Corps aviation enterprise, the service has not caught up from those lost hours. Many experienced workers quit during that time and it is not easy to hire back technicians with those kinds of skills, he said.

Nineteen percent of its aircraft totaling 159 rotary or fixed-wing aircraft are awaiting repairs and are unavailable for operations, he said.

“Readiness is cool. Sustainment is cool. It’s just as cool as buying new stuff. We basically have to plus up these accounts to take care of these older, legacy platforms,” Davis said.

Even though the three-engine CH-53Es are based on three-decades-old technology, it is still the largest and most powerful helicopter built in the West, according to a fact sheet on the program produced by aerospace consultants, the Teal Group.

And the CH-53K Super Stallion is expected to be three times more powerful than its predecessor.

“The 53 community is all about heavy lift,” Vanderborght said. The Echos can lift 9,000 pounds externally. The Kings will hoist 27,000 pounds externally in the same conditions.

The top level requirement is for it to lift a 27,000-pound external load on a 103-degree day at sea level and fly 110 nautical miles to a landing zone 3,000 feet above sea level at 91.5 degrees.

The three-fold increase in power will be achieved through three new technologies, he said.
The first is a fourth-generation rotor blade with anhedral — or downward facing — tips. They create greater lift, he said.

The second is a split torque main gearbox, which sits below the rotor blades. It is significantly lighter than the previous generation gearboxes. “And obviously less weight translates directly to increased payload,” Vanderborght said.

The third factor will be the new GE 38-1B 7,500 horsepower engines.

“For about the same size engine, you’re getting almost twice the horsepower,” Vanderborght said.

The King models will also feature three external payload hooks. “The beauty of that is that we’ll be able to pick up three separate, distinct loads from a ship and fly out to a forward area and drop each one of those loads at three separate LZs, or landing zones,” he said. Officials believe a triple hook capability will be a first in helicopter aviation, at least for models that have reached full production.

The Echo model can carry 30 Marines but is generally limited to 24. The King will routinely carry the full complement of 30 troops, he said.

The cabin will also be about 12 inches wider. The Air Force standard 463L cargo pallet that is loaded onto C-17 and C-5 transport aircraft is too large for a CH-53E, he explained. That means the Marines have to break them down and put them on smaller 48-by-48 inch pallets to fit them on the helicopter, which is time consuming and inefficient. 

“What we’ll be able to do now is take those pallets right off the C-17 and those C-5s and put them right into a 53-K … and then take them out to the” forward operating base. That will “drastically reduce the throughput and allow Marines to more quickly build up combat power up at the front where it is needed,” Vanderborght said.

The Kings will feature a full, modern glass cockpit, with five multifunction displays. It will be a fly-by-wire system, which will greatly improve handling qualities and allow for such features as hands-off hovering for the pilot, he said.

The new cockpit will also improve safety, especially in brown out conditions, when dust obscures a pilot’s vision. They will be able to push a button to go into a steady hover, he added.

Mike Torok, vice president of 53K programs at Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., said one of the other goals is to boost the reliability and availability of the aircraft.

Health usage monitoring and vehicle management systems can automatically tell technicians what needs to be fixed and when.

There is “a lot of automation and technology — all to help the maintainers keep the aircraft affordably up and flying so that they’re doing their mission and they’re not down being serviced,” Torok said.

The King is the first 100 percent digitally designed Sikorsky helicopter, he noted.

“There were a lot of activities from the beginning in the design to not only meet all of the performance requirements, but meet all the supportability requirements as well,” he said.

Davis said Congress helped the program remain on track when it approved the acquisition of two additional pre-production models. The program previously had only four engineering developmental models to work with. The six test aircraft will be “pushed to the extreme,” to find out what the aircraft can do, and to work out any bugs.

There is also a ground test vehicle bolted to a platform that crew members can practice on before they take to the air, along with a test airframe that has had 20,000 hours of simulated flight time to ensure that the helicopter will last as long as intended. The six models will inform Defense Department officials as to whether the program’s manufacturing processes are mature enough to reach Milestone C, which paves the way for low-rate initial production.

Torok said these early models, which will be retired after the test and evaluation phase is finished, are being built at Sikorsky’s West Palm Beach, Florida, plant. Where the remaining 200 Kings will be built has yet to be decided.

“One of the things that kills acquisition programs is changing requirements,” Vanderborght said. The top line requirements were set in stone back in 2005.

That was a decade ago, but technology has advanced since then, he acknowledged.  

“We look at new technologies, new things that maybe in the future can be inserted in the aircraft.” The program has a capabilities roadmap it uses to estimate when cutting edge technologies could be inserted, but without the so-called “requirements creep” that has sunk other acquisition programs.

The map tells them if the technology is mature enough, when is the right time to insert it into the program, and also takes into consideration funding availability, and requirements coming from the field, he said.

The Teal Group report said the program started out a decade ago with some unrealistic requirements, but now expectations are more reasonable.

“We have forecasted a healthy stream of cash for the new CH-53K,” the report said. “The new schedule should hold (because it very badly needs to hold),” it added.

Topics: Aviation

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