New ‘Beast’ Helicopter Will Triple Cargo Capacity of Heavy-lift Platform
by Jeff Newman
As it works to overhaul an aging fleet of heavy-lift helicopters, the U.S. Marine Corps is also approaching a major acquisition decision this winter that will allow production to begin on its replacement heavy-lift platform, the CH-53K King Stallion.
The new helicopter is aptly named—the current CH-53E Super Stallion has been the U.S. military’s most powerful helicopter since it debuted in 1981—and the King Stallion will almost triple that brawn.
A key performance parameter of the heavy-lift platform is its ability to perform its primary mission—carrying heavy stuff over long distances—in the thinner air created by high elevations and hot temperatures, or “high/hot” conditions, said Col. Hank Vanderborght, program manager for the H-53 Heavy Lift Helicopters Program Office (PMA-261) at Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR).
The CH-53K is required to carry 27,000 pounds in cargo from a sea-level base where the temperature is 103 degrees to a landing zone that is 110 nautical miles away and 3,000 feet above sea level where it is 91.5 degrees. Such conditions comprise the standard “Navy high/hot day,” in which the CH-53E only is capable of carrying 9,000 pounds.
“It’s awesome. The thing is a beast,” Vanderborght said of the King Stallion. “The Echo is an incredibly powerful helicopter as it is, the most powerful that we have in the U.S. military. The K is going to make the Echo look like a toy.”
That step up in power is necessary after a decade of war in which the U.S. military has retrofitted its vehicles and gear with heavy armor and weapons to counter emerging threats like roadside bombs and insurgent ambushes. A CH-53E pilot by trade, Vanderborght noted that when he first started lifting Humvees in the 1990s, they weighed between 5,500 and 8,500 pounds depending on the version.
“Then we went to Iraq and Afghanistan and started hitting IEDs, and now they have up-armored Humvees with the big turret on top and all the thick glass, and those weigh around 12,000 pounds,” he said. “So you’re 27,000-pound load is shotgun Humvees, which is two at the same time, and some additional—the Marines who drive the Humvees, some ammunition, things like that.”
A safe assumption may seem to be that because the King Stallion can carry thrice the gear of a Super Stallion, fewer CH-53Ks would be needed to perform the heavy-lift mission. But the Marines plan on buying 200 of the new aircraft, a requirement determined by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, an increase on the original CH-53E fleet size of 178.
“The thing that’s changed is the gear,” Vanderborght said. “You would think you don’t need as many Ks because the K can lift more, but the problem is your gear has gotten a lot heavier.”
The King Stallion will also be a much safer helicopter than its predecessor thanks to its fly-by-wire flight control system, which replaces the manual mechanical controls in the CH-53E with an electronic system that flies the aircraft based on the pilot’s input via the cyclic. The system also provides improved autopilot functions that help stabilize the aircraft in dangerous conditions such as brownouts.
For example, a CH-53K pilot will be able to program the helicopter to fly to a designated landing zone and, once there, maintain a 20-foot hover. By comparison, the stick-and-rudder Super Stallion is far more susceptible to disaster during brownout conditions, Vanderborght said.
“In the CH-53E there’s, no kidding, an iron rod that goes all the way from the pilot’s hand to the flight control surface,” he said. “You’re coming in at night and you’re trying to land that huge aircraft and a dust bubble engulfs you and you lose sight of the ground.”
The King Stallion will also expedite its deliveries by using a triple-hook external cargo system making its internal cargo space compatible with the U.S. Air Force’s standard pallet.
Like the CH-53E, the CH-53K will have three external cargo hooks, but whereas the former can only transport one shipment at a time via either a single point off its middle hook or dual-point off the forward and aft hooks, the latter can use its hooks in any configuration.
“The beauty of the triple hook is that you can service three different landing zones with three independent loads in one pass,” Vanderborght said.
Meanwhile, the interior of the CH-53K has been configured to be compatible with the 463L Master Pallet, the standard cargo pallet of the Air Force. The CH-53E can only fit the 40-by-48-inch pallets used by most commercial retailers, so Marines in Afghanistan have had to break down the pallets coming off Air Force C-5 and C-17 cargo planes and repackage them for transport out to the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF), Vanderborght said.
“Now when that stuff starts rolling off the C-5 and C-17, because it’s compatible with that pallet, we roll it right into a CH-53K,” he said. “War is all about logistics. It’s all about how quickly you can get your stuff out there—your troops, your beans, your bullets, your Band-Aids, all that.”
The King Stallion took its first flight in October, successfully hovering for 30 minutes at 25 feet, at Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation’s Development Flight Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, where all subsequent flight testing has been conducted.
NAVAIR awarded Sikorsky a $25 million contract April 18 for the acquisition of long-lead material needed to build the first four CH-53Ks—designated Low Rate Initial Production Lot 1—and the next day the King Stallion completed its first external load test by lifting and hovering while carrying 12,000 pounds.
It expanded the envelope again May 20 by lifting a 20,000-pound load, and on June 7 conducted further flight expansion tests while carrying 12,000 pounds. Ten days later, the CH-53K lifted a 27,000-pound load for the first time, one of the two key test points the platform needed to demonstrate before being cleared for production, a decision known as “Milestone C.”
The second test point is transporting a 12,000-pound load for 110 nautical miles. The King Stallion has carried 12,000 pounds at speeds of 120 knots, but the platform has yet to undergo much distance testing, Vanderborght said. The program is aiming for a Milestone C decision during the second quarter of fiscal year 2017, he added.
Once the program is cleared for production, testing will take on “a more operational flavor,” Vanderborght said. “For example, we’re going to go out to ships and land on them, we’re going to do aerial refueling testing, the kinds of things you would do in a normal operational scenario.”
Initial operating capability for the CH-53K is set for 2019, when the first four aircraft will be delivered to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 366, stationed at Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina. The squadron’s 16 Super Stallions will be spread across the remaining CH-53E fleet, and HMH-366 will continue receiving King Stallions until it becomes a full CH-53K squadron. The same transition process will then begin for another CH-53E squadron, and so on. Ultimately, the 200 CH-53Ks will be spread across 11 squadrons—eight active, one replacement and two reserve.
“I think it’s going to revolutionize the way we’re going to do war in the future,” Vanderborght said. “It’s kind of like when V-22 [Osprey] came out—Marines will find ways to use these aircraft that we haven’t even thought of yet, and I’m really excited about what the future holds with the CH-53K. I think it’s going to be an unbelievable step up in capability for the MAGTF commander.”
Jeff Newman is a staff writer and contributing editor of the Naval Aviation News magazine.