The USMC and a New Chapter in Heavy Lift: The CH-53K Logs Demo at New River


By Robbin Laird

A decade ago I was present at the creation of the Osprey nation and did many interviews and visits as the aircraft was stood up and supported in operations.

It was such a different aircraft from the CH-46 that the maintainers with whom I met a decade ago clearly new they had a new animal to work with.

This animal was a complicated beast, with some of the digital maintenance capabilities, which are now becoming central to new air platforms.

They had the initial manuals to work with on digital readers, but it was clear that this was going to be a challenging transition from the CH-46 to the Osprey for the maintainers.

And it has been.

With the CH-53K, it looks enough like a CH-53E to be a cousin.

But it is not.

It too is a very different aircraft, one which has left fully the mechanical age for the digital one.

And the Marines having learned from the Osprey experience are clearly focused on ways to ensure support for the K fleet as it is stood up.

The aircraft has been designed to simplify and reduce significantly the mechanical parts in the aircraft, in terms of an E to K transition.  The plane has its health maintenance system built into the aircraft configuration, rather than being a bolt on system.

And the Marines are focused on the overall logistics sustainment infrastructure integrated into the evolving concepts of operations being considered for the aircraft, rather than treating logistics as an aftermarket effort.

This core focus and effort can easily be overlooked as part of the 21st century air systems revolution.

But what is envisaged is really revolutionary for a force like the USMC and unless you spend time with the team working what they call the log demo it would be easy to miss the significant and strategic change, which the Marines, NAVAIR and Sikorsky are shaping.

Recently, I visited New River and had a chance to talk with several members of the log demo team.

This is a very impressive group of Marines, NAVAIR officials and Sikorsky field representatives and support elements.

The aircraft in the hangar on which the log demo is worked will be one of the initial aircraft in the first operational squadron, which will be based at New River as well.

In this article I will focus on the discussion I had with two key team leaders, namely Lt. Col. Jade Campbell and Lt. Col. Stu Howell, both with the VMX-1 detachment in New River.

As our readers now, VMX-1 is headquartered now in Yuma with detachments at New River and in Pax River.

The detachment at New River is focused on the CH-53, both legacy and the new aircraft.

Lt. Col. Jade Campbell is an experienced CH-53E operator and has recently spent time in Australia working in the Australian Ministry of Defence, and clearly the Aussie innovation spirit both rubbed off and was influenced by such a Marine. Just prior to that he was the Commanding Officer for HMH-366 the heavy lift squadron based at New River.

We interviewed LtCol Stu Howell earlier and he is an experienced CH-53K pilot as well as having been involved in the Presidential helicopter program and being part of the squadron which flies the President.

We started by focusing on how radically different the K is from the E and how that would be reflected in a new generation of operators of the aircraft.

LtCol Campbell underscored that a core competence of the E pilot is an ability to hover in difficult conditions; because the K does this with digital systems, the pilots will focus more no how their aircraft operates within the broader mission effort.

As LtCol Campbell put it: “Unlike with the E, there’s no challenge hovering a Kilo on a moonless night in a dusty zone.

“And that allows the K pilot to have the mental bandwidth to think about the battlespace.

“We are talking about a generational shift from a primary focus on being to operate a mechanical aircraft in the battlespace to one where the pilots can focus on the battlespace and their role within it while the aircraft takes care of the functions that had to be done by the pilot while flying the E.”

The log demo encompasses several activities.

The baseline activity is to take the manuals as prepared to maintain the aircraft.

The team then is testing out every aspect of procedures to determine what works, what needs to be modified and what new procedures might be more effective with the aircraft.

With regard to the baseline, they are verifying and modifying and redesigning the manual for the K.

As LtCol Howell put it: “We’re not redesigning the aircraft, but we are creating better procedures or mitigating fixes to help improve the safety of the aircraft.”

While doing this core bread and butter activity, the team is looking more broadly at how the skill levels and mix are changing to do a K and focusing upon how the USMC might organize itself more effectively to optimize the kind of workforce which a K needs versus the legacy E.

As LtCol Howell emphasized: “We’re verifying the publications and the procedures, but we’re also writing the playbook on what should our table of organization be within a heavy lift maintenance department.

“Obviously, the E and the K are very different aircraft and will be maintained differently.

“How should we staff the heavy lift maintenance department in light of this change?”

“Is it appropriate for an 18-year-old straight out of high school with a year of training to do the kind of maintenance that we’re talking about?

“Or do we need to change that approach?”

“For the maintainers, it’s how do we support the fly, fix, fly regime which will be shaped for the Kilo?

“And how do organize to operate effectively for a fly, fix, fly regime for this new aircraft?

“It really is about having a logistical infrastructure inclusive of an effective maintenance approach in order to have the optimal support for the ops temp we need.”

And they are looking past the single aircraft they are working on getting ready for the fleet management side of it, which in part is being done by both NAVAIR and Sikorsky at Pax River.

There the focus is upon how to leverage the big data being generated by the fleet to better position NAVAIR and the Marines to have a supply chain, which empowers operations, rather than as operating an impediment.

How to ensure that right parts being available on a timely basis to support real world operations, rather than simply having a rigid and arbitrary schedule of parts delivery?

The US Navy is working the broader question of the support enterprise.

They are looking at how parts movement to support onboard ship operations might be optimized.

They are looking as well at the locations where the K will be based and focusing on how to ensure that the supply chain can be optimized to support both the land and sea bases.

As LtCol. Howell noted: “The rotor head was pulled off and put into its transportation box.

“How will that be tractor trailered to Connecticut for overhaul or to Cherry Point?

“Do the resources that are available at New River and Cherry Point account for that?”

Obviously, the lessons being learned at the log demo are being transferred to the initial operating squadron, which is on site at New River as well.

After the log demo what is next for the Kilo?

“The Marines will take four aircraft through initial tests and evaluation which then become the seed corn for the first operational squadron and the first training instructors.”

The featured photo shows Marine maintainers working a main rotor head install on the CH-53K. Credit: USMC

Editor’s Note: More than a decade ago, we were present at the creation of the Osprey as a new combat capability for the USMC, and visited New River frequently starting in 2010.

To provide a baseline comparison to what the Marines did then and now in terms of standing up a new air capability, we are republishing several articles from those earlier visits.

For the first article in the Osprey retrospective, see the following:

“It Takes Time”: A 2010 Marine Corps Maintainer Perspective on Osprey Maintenance