CH-53K Sea Trials: One Step Closer to First Deployment


Last month, the Marine Corps wrapped up its first sea trials with the new CH-53K King Stallion.

In an article by Megan Eckstein published by USNI News on June 25, 2020, the crossing of one of the “last big items on the to do list before the heavy lift helicopter program can turn the aircraft over to the fleet for operational tests and a 2023 first deployment” was highlighted.

She interviewed Col. Jack Perrin, the H-53 heavy lift helicopters program manager for Naval Air Systems Command.

Col. Jack Perrin, the H-53 heavy lift helicopters program manager for Naval Air Systems Command, told USNI News in a June 24 interview that the sea trials were meant to test all the ways the helicopter interfaces with a ship: communications while in flight, the ability to land on all nine spots on the flight deck in all weather and lighting conditions, the ability to be towed around the flight deck and hangar bay, the ability to be folded up and tied down, the ability to be maintained at sea and more.

The helicopter conducted two flight periods a day, one in daylight and one at night – taking off, with the pilots recording notes on the difficulty and safety of that particular evolution; flying a mile or so from the ship; flying back in the traditional landing pattern to attempt a landing; recording notes on that landing; and then the ship turning into a new wind condition for the process to start over again.

Though sea trials with some other programs have exposed problems that needed to be addressed through technical or procedural changes, “we were very fortunate; we did not find that big thing that was going to cause us risk or delay or a big technical issue. With this, we have now gone through this program and hit pretty much everything that they aircraft needs to do in order to deploy. We still have some more data to take, we have some tests to finish up, but we’ve been to every big thing,” Perrin said.

“We’ve done the external loads, done the internal loads, we went out and did helicopter aerial refueling, and now we’ve gone to the ship and been out there and seen that. Our risk on this program, for the 53K not being able to go out and support that first deployment and get through [operational testing], is greatly reduced now because of the success we’ve had and the performance the aircraft has shown during this test and the test previous. So we’re pretty happy as a program.”

Perrin added:

“(With) operational test Marines out on the ship, with pilots in the cockpit, crew chiefs in the back of the helo and maintainers on the ship – all getting a sneak peak at how this helicopter compares to its predecessor.

“They now understand what it can do and what tactics, techniques and procedures, or TTPs, that they’re going to need to adjust from what we do with the 53E to how the 53K operates. So they are getting a complete heads start on having those tactics, techniques and procedures developed, so that when they go to the official IOT&E or initial operational test and evaluation, they’ve already been on the aircraft, they’ve already been flying the aircraft, they’ve already seen this,” he said.

“When they go out to the ship as part of the test – and they will go out to a ship as part of the IOT&E – they’re going to be running instead of learning at that time. They’re going to be executing. And that’s the key of an ITT or integrated test team, is that everybody gets to learn together.”

For another look at the CH-53K sea trials, see the following video as well:

We interviewed Col. Perrin earlier this year, and in that interview he highlighted the importance of the CH-53K for the Marine Corps.

In a visit to Pax River in January 2020, there was a chance to discuss the progress of the program with Colonel Jack Perrin Program Manager, PMA-261 H53 Heavy Lift Helicopters, US Naval Air Systems Command at Pax River Naval Air Station….

As Col. Perrin noted in our conversation: “The USMC has done many studies of distributed operations and throughout the analyses it is clear that heavy lift is an essential piece of the ability to do such operations.”

And not just any heavy lift – but heavy lift built around a digital architecture.

Clearly, the CH-53E being more than 30 years old is not built in such a manner; but the CH-53K is.

What this means is that the CH-53K “can operate and fight on the digital battlefield.”

And because the flight crew are enabled by the digital systems onboard, they can focus on the mission rather than focusing primarily on the mechanics of flying the aircraft. This will be crucial as the Marines shift to using unmanned systems more broadly than they do now.

For example, it is clearly a conceivable future that CH-53Ks would be flying a heavy lift operation with unmanned “mules” accompanying them. Such manned-unmanned teaming requires a lot of digital capability and bandwidth, a capability built into the CH-53K.

If one envisages the operational environment in distributed terms, this means that various types of sea bases, ranging from large deck carriers to various types of Maritime Sealift Command ships, along with expeditionary bases, or FARPs or FOBS, will need to be connected into a combined combat force.

To establish expeditionary bases, it is crucial to be able to set them up, operate and to leave such a base rapidly or in an expeditionary manner (sorry for the pun).

This will be virtually impossible to do without heavy lift, and vertical heavy lift, specifically.

Put in other terms, the new strategic environment requires new operating concepts; and in those operating concepts, the CH-53K provides significant requisite capabilities.

And this Marine Corps-Navy capability is suggestive of a broader set of considerations for the Army and the Air Force.

If Expeditionary Basing is crucial, certainly the CH-53K could provide capabilities for the Army and the Air Force, to compliment fixed wing lift aircraft.

And in many cases, only a vertical lift support capability will be able to do the job.

Remember the USAF flies the CV-22s and if they are part of the distributed fight and requiring expeditionary basing, it may be the case that such a base can be set up and sustained only by vertical heavy lift.

Both considerations, how to cross-operate across the seabase and the expeditionary base, and the question of whether vertical heavy lift is now becoming a strategic asset, will be dealt with in later pieces. 

But for now, the core point is simple – the K needs to come into the USMC-Navy team as soon as possible to enable the shift in concepts of operations required to deal with the new strategic environment.

And if the CH-53K became part of the joint team, the question of cost is very manageable.

By producing more aircraft, the cost curve comes down. And shaping a more effective cost curve is a significant challenge which the program is addressing.

For our archive of CH-53K stories, see the following: