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Fri, Jan 13, 2006

Development Work Begins On CH-53K

Not A Moment Too Soon For Many

A new heavy lift helicopter is now officially in the pipeline for the Marine Corps following the decision last month to authorize the Heavy Lift Replacement (HLR/CH-53K) program, and to begin a $4.4 billion development program for the aircraft.

Technologies under consideration in the CH-53K -- which is being developed as a new-build derivative of the venerable CH-53E --  will include a Joint Interoperable glass cockpit; high-efficiency rotor blades with anhedral tips; low-maintenance elastomeric rotorhead; upgraded engine system; cargo rail locking system; external cargo improvements; and survivability enhancements.

Fleet Marines should start receiving the first of 156 CH-53K marinized heavy lifters in 2015 -- which is none too soon for program manager Col. Paul Croisetiere. The Marine Corps also eagerly anticipates the replacement, as they have had to rely heavily on the aging CH-53E Super Stallion in the increasingly relevant heavy lift mission.

"Since the first Gulf War, Marine Corps vertical heavy lift has been getting further and further away from the original requirement it was developed to meet, a behind the lines logistics support aircraft," Croisetiere explained. "From the Scott O'Grady rescue mission in the Balkans to delivering critically needed combat support in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Horn of Africa, we're wearing out the aircraft because it has been in incredibly high demand since the mid 90s."

In fact, it's partly because the current aircraft has proved to be so reliable -- and thus, has stayed outside the spotlight -- that the CH-53 hasn't been given the attention "squeakier wheels" in the DoD arsenal have over the years.

"We currently have an under-resourced fleet," Croisetiere said. "In the 25 years it has been in service we have not had the investment necessary to effectively address obsolescence, reliability and maintainability issues. Based on our current and predicted usage rates, we anticipate the current fleet will start reaching this fatigue life limit in FY11 at a rate of up to 15 aircraft per year. Not only is this an expensive fix but it will require significantly increased management attention to ensure we have sufficient numbers of aircraft available to meet our operational commitments.

"We have to start now if we're going to have new CH-53Ks on the flight line ready for tasking when we start parking the Echoes," Croisetiere stated.

"Marinized rotary wing heavy lift is a very necessary capability that demands a very capable platform to accomplish," explained Lt.Col. Stewart Gold, the heavy lift program's deputy for logistics support. "The ability to deliver very heavy loads in extreme/austere conditions in support of Marine infantry, including combat, anywhere in the world comes at a price. On average, it costs approximately $15,000 and requires 44.1 maintenance man-hours for each flight hour."

Marine Corps acquisition officials also weighed the option of participating with the Army's Joint Heavy Lift program.

"The Army's proposed heavy lift requirement to transport the Future Combat System greatly exceeds our requirement," Croisetiere said. "The actual aircraft hasn't been designed yet, but initial analysis suggests the joint heavy lifter will be too large to operate from current and programmed amphibious shipping. We may have a use for it, but in more of a logistical role as a possible KC-130J replacement; we still need the CH-53K for tactical heavy lift."

Joint Heavy Lifters may not be available any sooner than 2025, according to Croisetiere --more than 10 years after the Marine Corps will start parking its current fleet.

"We can't wait for the Joint Heavy Lifter," he added. "And even if we could, we still couldn't use it because as currently envisioned, it's too big to operate from our amphibious ships. It will be an incredible platform, but it won't be a sea-based vertical lifter."

The CH-53K is being designed to carry a cargo load of 27000 pounds out to a distance of 110 nautical miles, to an altitude of 3000 feet at an ambient temperature of 91.5 degrees F, according to Croisetiere, which will allow the CH-53K to operate in mountainous areas in hot day conditions.

The first CH-53K, a flight test aircraft, is scheduled to make its first flight in 2011, with initial operating capability, or IOC, scheduled in 2015. 

FMI: www.sikorsky.com, www.marines.mil

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