The Coming of the CH-53K: An Update from New River


2013-08-09 A key asset being added to the 21st century amphibious fleet is a new version of the CH-53.

We earlier did an interview with a Marine involved in the program, who highlighted the potential contributions of the new helicopter to USMC-USN operations.

During this year’s visit to New River, we had a chance to talk with a key Marine involved in the upcoming testing of the CH-53K and who is moving to the test facility in West Palm Beach, Florida at the Sikorsky Test Development center this fall.

Major Foster T. Carlile is the CH-53K Operational Test Director.

SLD: Could you describe the current situation with the CH-53E fleet?

Major Carlile: We are approaching a serious situation with respect the CH-53E fleet of aircraft.  The airframes reaching their 10,000 hour limit, combined with the treacheries of flying in combat for over a decade has taken its toll.

Additionally, the new technology available to the CH-53K is a giant-giant leap relative to the CH-53E.

SLD: What are major differences between the CH-53E and the K?

Major Carlile: The biggest difference that jumps out in my mind is horsepower.  We are essentially going from 12 to 13,000 horsepower in the CH-53E up towards 22 -23,000 horsepower in the CH-53K.  The increase in fuel efficiency, considering the amount of horsepower increase, is rather amazing too.

Another big change is how we will fly the helicopter.  The CH-53K has a fly by wire system. 

The CH-53E uses a rate command system when large inputs to the cyclic are applied.  This type of system is great for flying in the TERF regime, but less worthy when trying to pick up an external load, in which case, an attitude command system is much more desirable.

The CH-53K AFCS system will be pilot selectable from the cyclic.  A rate command system, an attitude command system, and even a translational rate command system will be available.

Not to mention, a Flight-Director system will also be available, whereby one will be able to dial-in altitude and airspeed settings. 

The workload of the pilots and aircrew will be drastically reduced, allowing the pilots to focus more on the navigation and communication aspects of flying.

In short, the pilot will be in a monitor mode more often than not, as opposed to flying the aircraft actively.

The beauty of a fly-by-wire system is that it is programmable (within reason of course); however, these various modes require a significant increase in the amount of testing that is required, followed by future software upgrades of course.

CH-53K being prepared for tests. Credit: Defense Tech 

SLD: And the other thing that it’s a lot more maintainable, you’re improving a lot of maintenance issues because of what we call “manufacturing for sustainability.”

Major Carlile:  That’s correct.  Within the flight control system alone, I foresee significantly less time required to maintain it.  Removing and re-installing flight controls rods are now a thing of the past.

The same is true of the approach to maintaining the rotor head.  The head is going to be a dry head, in contrast to the 53E, where we have to maintain the oil reservoirs that allow each one of those blades to move in all directions.

Although, this is not new technology (currently used on the H-60), it’s going to be new for our aviation community, and will drastically decrease the downtime of the aircraft.

SLD: How will the 53-K affect MEU operations?

Major Carlile: The obvious answer is the amount of cargo that we can lift to support the MEU. The design of the cabin is a little bit different, which will allow us to directly load much larger pallets.

In the past, a 48-inch square warehouse pallet was all that could be put on the roller system in the back.  But now, the much larger metal pallets may be used.

A much more durable roller system has also been incorporated into the cabin floor of the CH-53K—a near frictionless system.

In addition, there will be a three-hook system, which can work together or independently (i.e. three separate hooks, enhancing the efficiency at the PZ and DZ).  Currently on the 53E, a single point system is available, as well as a dual point system; however, the two systems cannot be used at the same time.

A pilot could theoretically pick up something from zone A with hook 1, something from zone B with hook 2, and something from zone C with hook 3 and then drop them off separately.

This upgrade will permit much more operational flexibility. 

Final improvements which will make us more effective for the MEU are the state of the art systems onboard.

The most critical of which is the moving map on the instrument panel.  

The CH-53E doesn’t have a moving map that is incorporated into the instrument panel.  A recent modification has provided the community with a moving map kneeboard, but this is somewhat cumbersome and relatively small.

The days of plotting oneself on a tactical map or VFR sectional are over.

The icing on the cake is that threat information will be overlaid on the moving map, once again reducing pilot workload and effectively enhancing safety and mission accomplishment.

Editor’s Note: A recent piece in defense tech discussed the progress of the program:

The U.S. Marine Corps is preparing for the first flight of its next-generation CH-53K heavy lift helicopter, an aircraft acquisition program which is four years behind its original schedule.

The “K” model CH-53 is being engineered to provide more lift, speed, performance and protection compared to prior models.

The CH-53K, now being developed through a $435 million deal with Sikorsky from May of this year awarded by Naval Air Systems Command, is slated to take its first flight in the middle to late part of 2014. The contract calls for the construction of four test vehicles which are currently being developed at a Marine Corps facility in Palm Beach, Fla.

The more recent deal is an additional contract line item under a $3.5 billion System Development and Demonstration contract with Sikorsky in 2006, lining up development of the CH-53K.

The CH-53 K program is planning to enter Low-Rate-Initial-Production in 2016 and reach Initial Operating Capability by 2019, said Col. Robert Pridgen, heavy lift helicopters program manager, NAVAIR.

Read more: