Marine Corps CH-53K Heavy Lift Helicopter Moving Toward Production

By Vivienne Machi
CH-53K King Stallion

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Production is “rapidly approaching” for the Marine Corps’ CH-53K “King Stallion” heavy lift helicopter, a U.S. Navy Air Systems Command official said April 3.

The Sikorsky-built helicopter is on target to meet or exceed all of its key performance perimeters, which include mission reliability and range/payload requirements, Marine Corps Col. Henry Vanderbrought told reporters at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space conference in National Harbor, Maryland. Vanderbrought serves as the PMA-261 H-53 program manager for NAVAIR.

He declined to specify when production would begin. The helicopter is meant to replace the service’s current fleet of 146 CH-53E rotorcraft, which can no longer carry the weight needed to fulfill Marine Corps requirements, he said.

“The 53E can’t do the mission that we need to be done,” he said. The King Stallion is expected to carry up to three times more weight than the CH-53E variant.

Logistics and its size were also key perimeters, since the helicopter must fit on the Navy’s current ships.

“The challenge from a design perspective was to put all of this increased capability basically in the same sized box,” said Mike Torok, vice president of the 53K program for Sikorsky.

The forthcoming variant is about 12 inches wider than the CH-53E version to accommodate more cargo, including the future joint light tactical vehicle that will be used by the Marine Corps as well as the Army, Torok said.

The future King Stallion is also meant to be more survivable than the Echo variant, Vanderbrought said, “I’ll say it’s probably more survivable than any of the rotary craft that we have currently flying in the Marine Corps and Navy, and we designed it as such,” he said.

Four flight test aircraft are currently developed and housed at Sikorsky’s West Palm Beach, Florida, facility, and NAVAIR conducted its first operational assessment of those aircraft in October, he said said. The service demonstrated that the rotorcraft could lift 27,000 pounds going 110 nautical miles — a key requirement — and that it could fly a 12,000-pound load at 110 nautical miles and back. In February, the aircraft achieved 400 flight test hours.

The program office has tested the aircraft up to 88,000 pounds, which is the maximum gross weight it’s expected to carry, Torok said.

“Over the next few months, we’re really kind of mapping out the rest of the edge of the envelope, so we’re really pushing the aircraft to the edge,” he said.

Sikorsky’s initial program of record is 200 aircraft, Torok said. The first four are being built in West Palm Beach, two of which are already in the hanger and through final assembly, he noted. Those four helicopters will eventually serve as the operational evaluation aircraft, he added. Sikorsky is also on contract for two additional aircraft, which will undergo final assembly at Sikorsky’s Stratford, Connecticut, plant.

The company assembled CH-53Es at the factory back in the 1990s, but recently has focused on assembling UH-60 Blackhawks or SH-60 Seahawks, Torok said. Sikorsky expanded its ground testing and hydraulics facilities as well as equipment such as cranes to accommodate the CH-53K’s larger frame and upgraded systems, he added.

“We actually simulated the size of the aircraft,” he said. “Because this was an all digital-designed aircraft, the work instructions that are used to build this aircraft are all computer-generated … so we’re making sure the facility from an IT perspective can handle all of the automation.”

The program was previously plagued by schedule delays. The office of the director of operational testing and evaluation noted several issues in its annual report for fiscal year 2016, including main gear box testing fails and live fire testing issues, which caused the schedule to fall behind by about six to nine months.

The issues that were highlighted in the report are “largely solved,” Vanderbrought said, noting that trying to fit the expanded weight requirements into the same footprint at the CH-53E was itself a challenge. Testing is expected to be completed in spring of 2019, he added. Flight test periods aboard amphibious assault ships are scheduled for 2018, though NAVAIR is working to begin earlier, Vanderbrought said.

International interest has been ramping up as the rotorcraft reaches production, with Germany leading the charge to replace its CH-53G models, Torok said. Sikorsky is speaking with the German government as well as industry leaders to determine what the country’s requirements would be.

“We’re really confident that the 53K is certainly going to be the best value for what they’re looking or,” he said, adding that country was interested in about 41 aircraft. If that contract were signed, that could benefit the aircraft’s production unit cost, he noted.

Beyond that, Sikorsky is also in talks with other countries who might be ready to replace their heavy-lift helicopters, though Torok noted it was too early to comment.

Sikorsky is also open to developing a U.S. Navy version of the CH-53K that could conduct minesweeping operations, he added. “We’re certainly open to have those conversations with them.”

And though the CH-53K may not meet all of the requirements for the joint service future vertical lift, “it will be ready and on the shelf if they choose to go down that path,” he said.

The cost of the new King Stallion helicopters has generated buzz on Capitol Hill, after a 2016 Selected Acquisition Report from the Government Accountability Office said the estimated unit cost had increased about 14 percent from the baseline estimate.

As of January 2017, the unit cost of the CH-53K was just below $88 million, which is 22 percent over the baseline estimate but remains under the cost-per-unit percentage threshold needed to trigger a Nunn-McCurdy amendment, according to a Marine Corps public affairs spokeswoman.


Topics: Air Power, Marine Corps News

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