By Robbin Laird
A year ago, I visited Pax River and had a chance to discuss the progress of the CH-53K with Colonel Jack Perrin Program Manager, PMA-261 H53 Heavy Lift Helicopters, US Naval Air Systems Command at Pax River Naval Air Station.
And this week, he provided an update at this week’s International Military Helicopter Conference.
What was especially noteworthy was that Col. Perrin was able after a year of COVID-19 disruptions to report significant progress on the program.
Indeed, when answering a question from the virtual audience, he underscored how the team – government and industry – had adapted to the challenging conditions to continue progress on the program and to continue to close on to the IOC for the program.
He noted that the sea trials held last year were done under challenging conditions but were completed very successfully.
This is a testament to a very good working team supporting the program and hats off to them being able to persist in the face of significant uncertainties.
But then again they are Marines!
My visit to New River during the first week of December 2020 underscored the significant progress underway which Col. Perrin discussed at the conference.
Notably, the training systems are in place, the maintenance regime is working well, and last month, the Marines were able to completely maintain their CH-53Ks at New River on their own without contractor support as they moved down the road to later operational testing this year.
And last month, CH-53K King Stallion took its first fleet flight. Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron One (VMX-1) at Marine Corps Air Station New River, NC, launched the CH-53K King Stallion on its first fleet flight January 15, 2021.
The aircraft now enters a new phase of testing where it will be used to train Marines as they prepare for Operational Test and Evaluation later this year.
Col. Perrin focused significantly in his presentation on what the only new heavy lift helicopter for the joint force would bring to that force.
“I would tell you the 53K is what I would call the 5 th generation or the leading generation of heavy lift helicopters for all helicopters. It is fly by wire it has the power and speed that you really need in a helicopter and really executes its mission extremely well.”
He put a key point very well which pilots of the CH-53K have emphasized: “The pilots can put the aircraft where they need to in the combat environment.”
This is about the ability to work in degraded environments and with the fly by wire and other digital systems are able to put that aircraft exactly where the optimal location in the combat environment.
When I met with Lt. Col. Frank of VMX-1, the officer in charge of the CH-53K Operational Test Detachment, he underscored the importance of this capability to the warfighter.
“I’ve started in the Ch-53D in 2004, they’re my first love. I’ll always love them.
“They were much harder to fly. And the ease of flying this, the flight control system is probably the biggest game changer for the 53 community.
“We’re not used to anything like this. It’s very intuitive. It can be as hands off as you know, a brand-new Tesla, you can close your eyes, set the autopilot and fly across country.
“Obviously, you wouldn’t do that in a tactical environment, but it does reduce your workload, reduces your stress.
“And in precision hover areas, whether it’s night under low light conditions, under NVGs, in the confines of a tight landing zone, we have the ability to hit position hold in the 53 K and have the aircraft maintain pretty much within one foot of its intended hover point, one foot forward, lateral and AFT, and then one foot of vertical elevation change.
“It will maintain that hover until the end of the time if required. that’s very, very stress relieving for us when landing in degraded visual environments. Our goal at VMX-1 is to create tactics that employ that system effectively.
“Some communities struggle with how they use the automation, do they let the automation do everything? Do they let the pilots do everything? How to work the balance?
“We’re working on a hybrid where the pilots can most effectively leverage automation.
“If you know you’re coming into a brownout situation or degraded visual environment, you engage the automation at a point right before the dust envelops you. And then in the 53-K, you can continue flying with the automation engaged.
“You continue flying with the automation engaged, and you can override it, but as soon as you stop moving the controls, it will take your inputs, estimate what you wanted and keep the aircraft in its position.
“It’s a very intuitive flight control system, and it blends very well with the pilot and the computers. It allows you to override the computer.
“And then the second that you stop overriding it, the computer takes back over without any further pilot input.
“That’s probably the biggest game changer for our community.”
Colonel Perrin also emphasized the importance of enhanced survivability. “It was designed with survivability in mind.
“And what does that mean?
“When we define survivability it is how does the aircraft perform after its been hit and what I mean by that that is after its been shot at or after a missile has been shot at it.
“The 53K was designed to perform extremely well to get those pilots and crew out of that danger area…. Its ability to have survivability and survivability capabilities are extremely good.”
When met last year, we discussed at length a key element of new air systems, namely, being designed from the ground up for digital interoperability and software upgradeability.
Colonel Perrin highlighted that the aircraft was a “smart aircraft” and that it would both draw from and contribute to the integratable combat force working in a digital combat space.
In my words, it is designed to be a kill web contributor as well as engagement asset in the extended combat space.
He was asked a question of how it would work with the Osprey and highlighted how the two working together would help redefine the nature of the assault force.
Some of that change was already presaged in the Deepwater exercise conducted last summer at 2nd Marine Air Wing.
He concluded: “We’re just going to be able to bring more and farther and faster with the 53K as it integrates and moves forward …. I see this as a backbone of support, logistic support for the Marine Corps.”
Featured Photo: The CH-53K King Stallion successfully plugs into a funnel-shaped drogue towed behind a KC-130J during aerial refueling wake testing over the Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Erik Hildebrandt.
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