By Robbin Laird
In recent visits to both II MEF and 2nd Marine Air Wing (2nd MAW), it is clear that the coming of the CH-53K to the North Carolina-based Marines is crucial. As the Marines work enhanced naval integration and expanded force mobility in dealing with the evolving strategic environment, the capabilities which the CH-53K brings to the force is not a nice to have but a critical capability. And the new digital aircraft provides a solid foundation for evolution not only of the platform but for changes in concepts of operations as well.
Both the CG of II MEF, and the CG of 2nd MAW indicated in interviews I did with them this year, that the coming of the CH-53K is especially important for their force generation capabilities to deal with the evolving threats in the Euro-Med region. As I noted in the April interview with Lieutenant General Brian D. Beaudreault: “Although IIMEF is not the epicenter for receiving new Marine Corps kit, with the exception of the CH-53K (it does not have F-35Bs as part of its organic fighting force, e.g.), it must find was to innovate with the kit it has and to find new ways to work with an evolving US Navy to sort through how to deliver combat effects from ashore and at sea in support of the maritime fight.”
During my July 2021 visit to 2nd MAW, I had a chance to visit the VMX-1 CH-53K detachment at New River Marine Corps Air Station and to continue my discussions with LtCol Frank, Officer in Charge of the CH-53K Operational Test Detachment at New River. During my December 2020 visit to New River, I had a chance to work the new CH-53K simulator and to discuss the way ahead with the new aircraft with LtCol Frank.
As he put it during the December 2020 visit: “It is crucial to have a CH-53 fleet that works effectively as it is a unique capability in the USMC crucial for our way ahead operationally. It is the only aircraft we have that can move an expeditionary brigade off of our amphibious ships.”
During the July 2021 visit, Lt. Col. Frank provided an update on progress through the testing process but we took the opportunity to discuss as well the wider impacts which the CH-53K has on training and on operations as the USMC works its evolving approach to crisis management as part of the high-end fight.
Since my visit in December, Lt. Col. Frank indicated that they had received new aircraft and had begun and then ramped up the flying hours. With their flight certification, they have now flown around 235 flight hours on the aircraft. They have certified five aircraft commanders, five co-pilots, 10 crew chiefs and more than a required number of maintainers with the appropriate level of qualifications for the next phase of training. That next phase will occur in August at 29 Palms.
They have completed their initial operational training but are waiting for certification to begin initial operational test and evaluation. In the meantime, they have engaged in a number of “rehearsal test and evaluation” sessions with Marines at 2nd MAW and Camp Lejeune to prepare for the August training efforts at 29 Palms.
The digital aircraft has many advantages and one can be seen on the training dimension. As with the F-35, pilots can train to core proficiencies more rapidly, which leaves room for expanding training options for the evolving mission sets which the Marines are clearly focusing on for full spectrum crisis management.
With regard to conversion training, they have discovered at VMX-1, that hours and flight events could be reduced for the pilots. As LtCol Frank put it: “the initial conversion syllabus from the CH-53E to the CH-53K was tailored based on our best guess of what events and flight hours would be required for the conversion aircrew. Following our initial foray into our own flight and simulator training and through our evaluations of the current syllabus we realized we could reduce those numbers by around 25%.
“Currently, we are focusing heavily on the co-pilot series-conversion syllabus which began as 17 total flight events for 26 flight hours. After our pilots completed this period of instruction, surveys taken at the end indicated that we could pare those numbers down by 7 events and10 less flight hours. My hope is that this 25% savings will result in a typical Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron saving 6 months over the duration of their transition.
“So now, if we can can capitalize on the flight hours savings and pair that with an enhanced focus on the higher-level syllabus, we could expand training for those missions to meet high end events that the Marine Corps has decided is important in the evolving context.”
We then discussed what he saw as the clear advantages of the K over the Echo for the USMC. As he put it: “There is nothing sexy about assault support. Horsepower’s our weapons system, and reliability is the key to providing the horsepower for the heavy lift needed for assault support.”
Reliability is crucial; and the K is focused on enhancing reliability over the legacy aircraft. As he put it: If the grunts want a lift, and they need six to eight helicopters, it would take a whole MAG effort of 53 ECHO to put the package in the air for a battalion. With more reliability, we would not need a whole MAG to do this.
“We’re hoping that’s where the K is going to help, with its digital systems, engine, rotor, and drivetrain system reliability. The Full Authority Digital Electronic Control (FADEC) provides enhanced control, health monitoring, maximum power and efficiency as often as possible. They also provide what we call automatic power assurance checks and integrated power assurance checks. So we know exactly how engines are performing all the time. And it’s providing real-time data.
“Automatic means the FADEC is just pulling numbers all the time. It’s a behind the scenes process. It’s just going all the time and it gets downloaded onto our maintenance data card, which then the maintainers will plug into their ground module, their ground computer, and they can see the engine health.
“Also, we can initiate power assurance checks as pilot, and the pilot can then bring up the summary of those and I can see, okay, power is doing good. Based on the spec engine performance, I’m actually plus 38 from the spec engine. So I’ve got more power than even the spec engine should have. The engine power available and limitations will be reflected on the primary flight display so we can be aware of that in the plane.
“Such accuracy and certainty is critical when you do a high altitude and a high ambient air temperature lift. That’s when the K would be power limited. Knowing exactly how much power the engines are putting out, if I’m called to extract a platoon of Marines from a mountain top that’s very high and it’s very hot, and I have a lot of fuel on board, so I might be power critical, I can do a power assurance check and know that I’ll be able to do it. Unlike the Echo, the K will give you a visual readout of your power status in real time while you are executing the lift.”
LtCol Frank then addressed the reliability piece which the Integrated Vehicle Health Monitoring System (IVHMS)delivers.
“Our main gearbox pressure sensor will say it’s starting to fail or it’s getting a false reading. It’s still performing, but it’s getting a false reading. And what our maintenance Marines will do is they’ll interpret that maintenance data when we give them the data card and they’ll say, “Okay, your main gearbox pressure sensor reported itself. Your intermediate gearbox reported itself for vibrations. That means there’s a bearing failing in it.”
“As opposed to the ECHO where we would fly, and we would see chip light, caution light, oil pressure failures in the gearbox. That means the gearbox literally seizes or fails itself. That’s when we know it’s failed. In the K we’ll get proceeding indications of that. Ideally, it leads to parts being removed before they fail. That should lead to increased maintenance readiness.”
“Things fail a lot in the legacy aircraft. As a flight crew, you build an anecdotal seat of the pants data base.I have had dozens of hydraulic system failures, multiple engine failures, oil system failure, , electrical components failing, attitude gyros failing at night and in IMC.
“All those things create the seat of the pants sense that you need a lot of hours to accumulate, those failures help you get the experience you need.”
One benefit of these machine-aided pilot systems in the K clearly is that the less experienced pilots can approach capability levels of more experienced pilots. This will enable the man-machine system to deliver more safety for flights, and enhanced combat capability for the Marines as well. Assuming you’re an experienced pilot, you have combat experience from which you could make judgments. But if I’m a less experienced pilot, now I have actually some machine aids that can help me.
Given that Marines are onboard one is talking about a lot of lives. And when the USMC Commandant and the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps visited VMX-1 at New River in March, this was a key point which LtCol Frank underscored. Pilot vertigo can be a Marine killer and has been in past accidents. With the ability to push a button and let the aircraft fly itself, this should not happen in the future.
The advantages of a digital aircraft are very clear. But this means as well that cyber threats need to be dealt with on an ongoing basis, and clearly, the CH-53K program is not only aware of this but working it. Regular upgrading of software on the aircraft is part of the solution as well as cyber defensive capabilities as well. Both are being pursued with regard to the aircraft and its support systems.
What does LtCol Frank conclude with regard to the aircraft coming to the Marine Corps?
“With the 53-K I would fly it 1,000 times over with my hair on fire before I would set foot in an ECHO again. Don’t get me wrong, I love the old iron, still wear a 53D patch. I cherish my time in that plane. It’s my first love. It’s like an old Jeep, simple and reliable but unrefined, the ECHO is similar. However, most of the time I would prefer to drive the Denali, that is the KILO. Its operational capabilities are much enhanced over those legacy aircraft simply by the awareness and aides it can provide to the flight crew, our crew chiefs and maintainers feel the same.”
Being a generational shift, the new digital aircraft is in LtCol Frank’s words “a blank slate.”
“You have an aircraft that can carry significant supplies or Marines inside and can carry 36,000 pounds externally. They can carry a lot of stuff. It has automated flight control systems that allows you to land in the degraded visual environments that you would not dare land an ECHO or a DELTA in. It can fly long distance without the air crew being fatigued. If you’re aerial refueling and flying 1,000 miles in the E, the air crew would be wet noodles getting out after the flight. In the K you can relax a little, take a breath, allow the aircraft to help you fly and thus reduce aircrew fatigue significantly.
“I think when the necessity for conflict rears its head the K will be able to respond, and using human ingenuity, the operators will be able to find a way to support any mission that the Marine Corps needs it to do. The K is so versatile that I don’t see people being pigeonholed into not being able to do something with a K. I think they’ll be able to answer the call 99.9% of the time;”
“It’ll be able to pick it up. It’ll be able to transport it, fly it any distance and land it anywhere. And you’re not going to be afraid to do it. In the ECHO, if it was low light at night, the visibility was bad, you didn’t have a moving map, and you were headed to a dusty and tight zone the pucker factor would be through the roof. The altitude hold was suspect, it didn’t have lateral navigation and flight director capability, your attitude gyros would fail often. So you get this hair on the back of your neck stands up that, I don’t want to be flying in this environment. The aircraft’s not going to help me, and I can’t help myself because I don’t have my sensory cues.”
“But in the K, you know the aircraft’s going to help you. We’ve sat in brown out dust, just sitting there hovering and talking to each other with position hold on. And we’ve been debriefing the landing, and the aircraft’s just holding a hover perfectly.
“So that’s what I like about the K is that I think it will be able to answer the call for the mission most anytime the Marine Corps needs it, whether we know what the mission is going to be, or not.”
The featured photo and the photo of the author with Lt. Col. Franks are credited to 1stLt Mogollan, who provided first rate public affairs support during my visit.
Interview with Lt. Col. Luke Frank, the officer in charge of the CH-53K detachment of Marine Test and Evaluation Squadron 1 (VMX-1), at Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina, Jan. 15, 2021. Video by Lance Cpl. Chelsi Woodman 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing
See also the following: