By Liz Mildenstein
A CH-53K King Stallion touched down at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland, for the first time June 30. Relocated from Sikorsky’s Development Flight Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, it is the first of seven aircraft expected to arrive over the next 12 months.
The flight was awesome,” said U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Hayden Tyler Stevens, one of the CH-53K pilots for the ferry. “The in-route navigation, communications system and moving map made the flight easy.”
Airborne for 6.2 hours over 810 nautical miles (NM), the flight was the longest yet for the platform.
At NAS Patuxent River, the CH-53K will run through various flight quality, ground and avionics assessments as the program continues developmental testing. The ferry flight follows the Milestone C decision in March, which approved the program to proceed with low-rate initial production.
With four aircraft in test, the CH-53K as of July 5 had logged more than 475 cumulative flight hours. Initial operational capability remains on pace for 2019 and is defined as having four aircraft, with combat-ready crews, logistically prepared to deploy.
The King Stallion is designed to operate in high and hot environments, has expanded lift power, features modern pilot amenities and boasts a decreased logistical footprint.
“It is the most powerful helicopter our country has ever built,” said Marine Corps Col. Hank Vanderborght, program manager for the H-53 Heavy Lift Helicopters program. “There is a lot to be excited about with this new aircraft, but the most obvious difference between the legacy [CH-53E Super Stallion] and the kilo [CH-53K] is the new helicopter’s tremendous amount of lift power.”
The CH-53K has more than triple the payload capability of its predecessor, made possible by increased engine power—enough to carry max gross weight at density altitudes over 3,000 feet—and a composite airframe, which is metal on the CH-53E.
In addition, a triple hook system allows the King Stallion to deliver three loads to three locations in one pass.
“That capability in itself makes the 53K the premier heavy-lift helicopter in the world,” Vanderborght said.
Last year, the CH-53K successfully hovered with an external payload of 27,000 pounds at 100 feet, demonstrating the aircraft’s capabilities in one of its most stressful lift requirements. It is designed to carry this high payload to a radius of 110 NM in high/hot ambient conditions. At lower payloads in less extreme ambient conditions, the range of the aircraft is much longer.
The internal payload has been improved as well, with one key upgrade being the CH-53K’s compatibility with the U.S. Air Force’s 463L Master Pallet, the standard pallet used to transport military cargo. The CH-53K can carry two of the pallets without having to break them down into smaller loads while transferring between airlifter and helicopter, as required with the CH-53E.
In addition to payload enhancements, pilots have the benefit of a modern glass cockpit featuring digital panels and full authority fly-by-wire flight controls and mission management. These features reduce the pilot’s workload, enabling the crew to focus more on mission execution.
“The human/machine interface and advanced control laws have the potential to make our more difficult tasks, such as dusty landings and low-light-level flying, easier and safer. The aircraft nearly flies itself,” said Stevens, a CH-53K project pilot for the test program.
Pilot features include advanced stability augmentation, flight control modes that include attitude command-velocity hold, automated approach to a stabilized hover, position hold and precision tasks in degraded visual environments, and tactile cueing.
Stevens said even with all the new controls and “bells and whistles,” flying the CH-53K is intuitive.
From a logistics perspective, the CH-53K was designed with the maintainer in mind. During the research-and-development phase, a working group of Marine maintainers and Sikorsky engineers discussed lessons learned from their experience with the CH-53E. This information was used to identify ways to reduce the maintenance man hours per flight hour. Improvements are seen throughout the aircraft, including the tail rotor gearbox, integrated vehicle health monitoring systems, fuel pump system and the fleet common operating environment (FCOE).
“The FCOE is basically a big data center where all of the information that comes off of the helicopter can be funneled to the engineers, logisticians and program managers,” Vanderborght said. “From there, these stakeholders can efficiently analyze the data to make predictive decisions that ultimately increase performance and reliability.”
With production expected to begin later this summer, the Department of Defense Program of Record remains at 200 CH-53K. The Marine Corps plans to stand up eight active duty squadrons, one training squadron and one reserve squadron to support operational requirements.
Liz Mildenstein is a communications specialist supporting H-53 Heavy Lift Helicopter Program Office