View Full Version : New mission, new machine

01-17-06, 12:35 PM
New mission, new machine

By Gayle S. Putrich
Times staff writer

The Corps' heavy-lift mission has changed.

And the helicopter is changing along with it.

A replacement for the CH-53E Super Stallion is on the drawing board at the Pentagon, and it's a major improvement over the older bird.

It's called the CH-53K, a heavy-lift aircraft designed for heading into hot zones.

"This helicopter was never envisioned to operate tactically," said John Milliman, a spokesman at Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, Md., referring to the CH-53 family of heavy-lift helicopters.

But for the last several years, the 53E has been operating as part of the assault wave, rather than just the supply line.

"The K, from the get-go, is going to be designed to go in harm's way," Milliman said. "For Marines on the ground, that means that it will be better able to support them no matter where they are."

Designing an aircraft with specific uses and conditions in mind will also make the new helicopter more maintainer-friendly, he said.

The 53E is the Navy Department's most expensive aircraft per flight hour, largely because of the amount of maintenance it requires: about 44 hours for every flight hour. The 53K is expected slash maintenance time and costs by 45 percent.

"The mission has changed, and the 53K is going to, right off the assembly line, truly meet the mission requirements," Milliman said.

An initial $8.8 million contract with Sikorsky was signed Jan 3. The first flight of the Super Stallion replacement is expected on Nov. 11, 2011, with deliveries going to the fleet in 2015. All 156 helicopters are expected to be in the air by 2021.

The new 53K will have ballistic armor built into the floor of the cargo bay, as well as underneath the cockpit. The three phases of armor vulnerability tests on the setup are underway at China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center, Calif., said Col. Paul Croisetiere, Marine Corps heavy-lift program manager at NavAir.

While there will be fewer seats on the 53K - down to 30 flip-up, crashworthy seats from the 55 on the 53E, which had none rated for crashes - the elimination of the center row of seats from the design will help focus the helicopter's mission.

"Passengers are the primary mission of the V-22 [Osprey]," Croisetiere said, "with its speed advantage," whereas the 53K "has a significant payload advantage and a primary mission of equipment transportation. They will be complementary aircraft."

The new helo will be able to handle more than twice the external cargo than the Echo - 27,000 pounds to the E's 12,100 - with a maximum weight of 84,700 pounds, a 16 percent increase. The 53K will also be able to internally load two Humvees, one light armored vehicle or up to 30 leathernecks.

New rotor blades will provide more lift and last longer in harsh desert conditions. Those blades, combined with advanced engines with a horsepower boost and the latest in gearboxes, are expected to provide a 558 percent increase in combat radius from the 53E.

"Engine technology has moved a long way" since the design of the current flight of 53s, Croisetiere said.

The new helicopter's footprint will be only slightly smaller - narrowed by 6 feet - so the same number will fit on the decks of amphibious ships, Sikorsky representatives said. But they will be easier to handle and move aboard ship.

Even with all the technological improvements, the 53K will not be a totally new helicopter. In fact, it isn't expected to look or feel that different from the 53E - just be a lot more powerful.

Logistics systems in the 53K will be based on the systems developed for the Joint Strike Fighter, allowing for easier interoperability among aircraft and training - and keeping costs down.

And while the windscreens will be widened, the Marine Corps and Sikorsky are looking to tweak existing cockpits to be used in the 53K.

"We're not going to reinvent the cockpit," Croisetiere said.

The 53Ks are projected to cost about $56.6 million each on average, making it one of the most expensive aircraft the Marine Corps has ever fielded, according to Croisetiere.

The program is expected to cost about $18.8 billion, from design to flight, which is predicted to take nine years.

The biggest concern for the Corps' heavy-lift program isn't what kind of engine will go into the new helicopters or what they will look like: It's whether the helicopters it already has will last until the 53K is ready.

Attrition has already far exceeded inventory requirements set by the Corps, with 150 53Es currently flying of the 160 they say are needed.

Another 35 CH-53D Sea Stallions are rounding out the unit.

"The fleet is living with it. But we have an inventory issue with heavy lift," Croisetiere said.

The Corps can bump that number up to 152, Croisetiere said, by pulling two mothballed 53Es out of the desert Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Center and doing an 18-month, 150-point refit that he says is worth whatever it will cost.

"It's money well spent for us," he said.

Milliman estimated the refitting cost at $17 million, or $8.5 million per aircraft.

Three helos have already been refitted, he said, but at the slightly lower cost of $8 million each, because they were in better condition.

But even with the current refit, fatigue life issues on the 53Es, which came into the fleet in 1981, are expected to start taking a serious toll in 2011, and all the helicopters will need major airframe surgery to keep going until the 53K is ready in 2015.

Croisetiere said he expects to lose 11 to 12 aircraft a year starting in 2011, and the Corps is still working on a fix for the worn-out transition bulkhead, where the tail boom folds in to compact the helicopters on deck.

A plan is expected to be put in place in the next six to eight months, Croisetiere said.

According to Milliman, moving up the already-tight production schedule of the 53K is just not possible.

"We're at a point now where the schedule is such that we're probably going to bring the 53K online as soon as we can," Milliman said. "But we don't program a lot of fat into the schedule."