Corps Preps CH-53K for First Flight

CH-53KThe 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.

The program office says they are on track after an April 2011 Government Accountability Office report on the program raised concerns about cost growth and schedule delays with the CH-53K.

The report, titled, “CH-53K Helicopter Program has Addressed Early Difficulties and Adopted Strategies to Address Future Risks,” credits the program for implementing strategies to delay production and increase developmental funding but cites a history of problematic cost growth for the effort.

The report cites $6.8 billion in cost growth due to increasing quantities and efforts to begin development prior to determining how requirements can be achieved.  Furthermore, the report says that program challenges wound up delaying the sought after production timeline by as much as three years.  Since the time of this report, the IOC for the helicopter has slipped another year to 2019, resulting in an overall delay of up to four years.

At the same time, in order to meet operational demand for the CH-53 mission, the Marine Corps wound up bringing old airframes back from retirement in 2010 at a cost of $2.8 million each.  CH-53E airframes were taken from an Airzona desert “boneyard” and refurbished to meet wartime needs, since the production lines for the helos ended in the late 90s.

Meanwhile,  CH-53 K program officials told the GAO as recently as this past March that helicopter design was sound and that the program is on track to meet all the requirements.

The idea with the helicopter is to engineer a new aircraft with much greater performance and three-times the lift capacity compared to the existing CH-53 E or “Echo” model aircraft designed in the 80’s, said Pridgen.

“The requirement is to be able to lift 27,000 pounds, take it 110 nautical miles, stay 30 minutes on station and then be able to return to a ship under high hot conditions.  If I were to try to do that today, the best the “Echo” could do is 9,000 pounds,” Pridgen said.

Higher temperatures and higher altitudes create a circumstance wherein the decreased air-pressure makes it more difficult for helicopters to fly and carry payloads.

Pridgen explained that the requirement for the “K” model CH-53 emerged out of a Marine Corps study which looked at the combat aviation elements of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force, or MAGTF.

“We recognized that the mission had evolved and that the national security strategy had said that the mission had changed such that more lift was required. And the requirement for heavy lift needed to be affordable in terms of sustaining it. Out of that requirement the ”K” was born; The K requirement not only make it able to lift a lot more and take it a long way —  but also to make this thing a lot easier to maintain,” he said.

Engineers with the “K” program are using a handful of new technologies to achieve greater lift, speed and performance with the helicopter, including the integration of a new, more powerful GE 38 turboshaft engine for the aircraft, developers explained.

“Fuel consumption of the engine is 25-percent improved. On a pure technology level it is about a 25-percent improvement in fuel efficiency,” said Dr. Michael Torok, Sikorsky’s CH-53K program vice president.

The helicopter is also being built with lighter-weight composite materials for the airframe and the rotorblades, materials able to equal or exceed the performance of traditional metals at a much lighter weight, said Torok.

“Technology allowed us to design a largely all-composite skinned airframe. There are some primary frames titanium and aluminum. Beam structure and all the skins are all composite. Fourth generation rotorblades are a combination of new airfoils, taper and a modification of the tip deflection of the blade.  It is an integrated cuff and the tip geometries are modified to get additional performance,” Torok said.

The helicopter will also be configured with Directional Infrared Countermeasures, or DIRCM, a high-tech laser-jammer designed to throw incoming missiles off course.

Also, the CH-53 K will be using what Torok referred to as a split-torque transmission design that transfers high-power, high-speed engine output to lower-speed, high-torque rotor drive in a weight efficient manner.

The K model will be a “fly by wire” capable helicopter and also use the latest in what’s called conditioned-based maintenance, a method wherein diagnostic sensors are put in place to monitor systems on the aircraft in order to better predict and avert points of mechanical failure, Pridgen explained.

“There’s an opportunity to learn about the aircraft and be much more predictive,” he said.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • blight_

    “The report cites $6.8 billion in cost growth due to increasing quantities and efforts to begin development prior to determining how requirements can be achieved”

    Increasing quantities=good

    “Efforts to begin development prior to determining how requirements can be achieved”=not so good?

  • hibeam

    an aircraft acquisition program which is four years behind its original schedule, Meanwhile somewhere in China highly educated highly motivated engineers without neck tattoos are graduating from college.

    • CharleyA

      The Marines slowed the program to bolster the MV-22 program.

  • Derek

    The original design was created in the 60’s…don’t ya think we ca do better then simply bumping up the specs after half a century…

  • Lance

    Glad to see a new Super Stallion doing well hope she flies well.

    • Derek

      It’s way over budget and years behind schedule…what article did you read?

  • Bob

    New airframe, same name

  • helodriver

    The K is slightly larger than the V-22 (empty weight), but will carry five times more payload, and have greater range. Although the V-22 will have 30% more cruise speed, all Marines favor ending the V-22 to buy more 53Ks (except their covert sales rep, General Amos, whose career was guided by Bell).

    • ziv

      I was with you up until the “all”, but I guess the nom de plume should have tipped me off in advance. The 53K is going to be some serious heavy metal, but I see a role for the V22, as well.

    • blight_

      Depends on what you want. If you want payload uber alles, the Army would replace every single helicopter in its fleet with Chinooks and end it at that.

    • majr0d

      Ref range and inappropriate comparisons.

      CH53K 454nmi

      Osprey over 800nmi
      p 59

      Comparing the two is silly. It’s like comparing a pickup truck to a semitrailer, different missions. A better comparison would be against the Chinook. Which is over 70% cheaper, has an almost identical speed, you can fit two in a CH53K footprint (with a 25% increase in payload at 46% of the cost).

      The ONLY thing a Sea Stallion can do that two Chinooks can’t is lift a LAV and I don’t think the LAV is the Marines magic sauce.

      The Marines would have saved a chunk of cash perfecting folding rotors for the Chinook (they exist) and procuring them instead. So much for frugality.

  • oblatt1

    The marines are struggling to fund this because they threw away so much money on the Osprey. A huge reduction in capability.

    Not least to suffer is the medivac mission. The last thing many marines will hear will be “hang in there, the osprey is coming, most of them are down for maintenance the few are busy and we don’t have enough…just hang in there” as they bleed out.

    • blight_

      “The marines are struggling to fund this because they threw away so much money on the Osprey”

      Agreed. JSF-B, Osprey and EFV weren’t cheap. The money came from somewhere.

      That said, a few commentors here say that Osprey readiness is higher than it used to be…


        The Osprey and Ch-53K should be used together; they both are excellent lift helicopters. But, if you want to move troops quickly, Osprey all the way. Ch-53 seems more, versatile, though. Best of both worlds=using both….

    • tiger

      Helicopters have their limits by design. None can break 300 knots. Unpressurized, they stay under 20,000 Ft. The range is still half of a tilt rotor. Sorry, but this seem more like busy work for Sikorsky than any great improvement.

    • Riceball

      The problem with that statement is that 53s aren’t typically used in the medevac role, I’m pretty sure that the 46 is the preferred helo for the medevac role within the Corps and given that the 46 is being replaced by the Osprey more 56s won’t make a difference as far as medevacs are concerned.

  • brownie

    So much better value than the V-22. Great job.

  • I have always wondered why we didn’t just upgrade the ’53’Es back in the day instead of investing in the Osprey. I remember when Gen Gray was touting the Osprey I always wondered why not just make a good thing even better?

  • Guest

    Help me understand, I thought I was reading a blog on advances in DoD tech but the comments seem to only degrade the new tech in favor of the old. “Back in my day we flew the Sopwith Camel and I feel that the Camel ZX model is more effective than your crazy jet fighters.” Could someone please direct me to a blog where the readers are interested in new tech?!



    • CharleyA

      Tiltrotors are not really new tech – predecessors existed back in the 1940’s and earlier. Lots of money and blood has been spent to make the concept workable. The debate continues if the investments were worth its unique capabilities. WIll it be a game changing enabler to a broader range of missions, or simply another platform to perform missions that could be otherwise be accomplished by cheaper helos.

    • Rob

      Snoopy is the last known Sopwith Camel pilot… highly decorated too, I believe…

    • James

      Right. We all love the helo’s we crewed. The role of the Corps and the world situation has changed. The Corps is ever evolving.

  • Andy

    CH-53K Projected : 170 knots, 110 nmi w/o refueling, 15,000 feet
    Osprey: 255 knots, 390 nmi, 29,000 feet

    Can we stop comparing 2 things that are drastically f***ing different? I get it, the CH-53 carries a larger payload, it also does it at 3/5 the speed, half the range and half the altitude. They don’t do the same things, accept that Osprey is here and embrace the god damn thing.

  • Roger

    The V-22 has flown up to 29,000 in tests, but its not heated nor pressurized, so crews are limited to less than an hour up there, and with no passengers.

    Same deception with range. Always quoted when flying at 25,000ft with no payload. Bring it down to flying at 8000 feet (like it does in Afghanistan) the range falls a lot. And the max range is a joke. That’s when it loads three internal fuel tanks. Helicopters can do that too, but don’t use it when quoting range. The CH-53K and even the E has more range than the V-22. Read OPEVAL results and not Bell sales pamphlets. And the K will be 11-inches wider than the E so it can carry an Hummer inside, yet a V-22 can’t even fit in an old jeep. And the V-22 is bigger than the CH-53E in empty weight! Its a heavyweight class lifter with poor medium lift performance, about the same as the H-60L, which is one-third its size.

  • Ajax

    I understand that the primary advantage of the v22 is cruise speed. It’s vtol capabilities is nothing more than a much touted lethal ” white elephant”.

    • DGR

      Ya you nailed it, nobody on the ground wants to ride into and from battle in a fast and high flying bird, they want something as slow and low as they can get.

  • jeff

    And they have not even started maintenance training

  • John

    One question: why is that almost ever major weapons system that the American military orders is always two plus year over delivery date? is it because the companies in American are so bad in making something that delivery it on time on budget or under budget. it always two plus years late an billion of dollars over coast. is out country that stupid?


      The people aren’t.

      The folks in the suits? Well…..

    • HiPowerGuy

      Well, I hate to say, but that seems to be the norm now a days, to make sure every9one gets PAID what they want!! Take a quick peek at the 3 or more cancelled programs on upgrading the m16/m4 rifle, when an improved upper with thicker barrel, better trigger/fcg and buffer tube/buffer seems to be all that is needed for another 20+ yrs of service. No one has be able to take GREAT leaps in technology over our current rifle system, especially with this small upgrades. But there have been at least 3 cancelled programs worth, oh, I don’t know, but, hundreds of millins of dollars, and back to square one. It is the way BIG companies milk the taxpayer, and the abundant layers of gov’t hacks that waste all this money. Well, IMHO at least.

  • fireater41

    Keep the V-22, Provide Door Gunners when in helo-mode and use it for supply runs only.

    Upgrade the 53’s and keep the most powerful helo in the free world funded to keep the Marine Corps in the mix.

  • d. kellogg

    More than anything here, I’m interested in the GE38 turboshafts that are intended to power the-53K.
    In addition to its T407 turboprop cousin, this engine is in a class (6000-7500shp) that opens up new windows of opportunity for US military aircraft.
    The C-130 family has been highly successful thru its career on 4000-5000shp turboprops, as well as the Navy’s E-2/C-2 fleet.

    With this new powerplant and its future growth potential (8000shp or beyond?) it opens up a whole new level of military transport aircraft for the US (before someone starts shouting “just buy the A400M”), potential replacements that we’ll need down the road to replace the USN’s aging C-2 fleet as well as the venerable C-130.
    I personally believe LM was short-sighted in equipping ther J-Herc with ~only~ a 5000shp class turboprop, instead of going commonality with the Ospreys and their 6000shp class engines…

    • blight_

      I’d laugh if the military decided to go with more commonality/interchangeability with their engines, but nooo…

  • OD375

    I have no idea whatsoever why a Marine or anybody else would prefer a V-22. Spare the trouble of countering my comment because I will never forgive the Corps for its role in killing all the young Marines who died as crew members in these aircraft and the many brave Marines who died as passengers in these death traps. The CH-53K is a superior aircraft in ALL respects but its development and production is being miss-managed by a very corrupt system. To the naysayers, bring it the _ _ _ _ on.


    The V-22 project was well underway by 1985 and as is typical of new concepts they are proven after a decade or two of service. Unfortunately due to politics, new weapons acquisitions programs often are really 20 to 30 years old by the time they are described as new and promising or new and troubled by the reporting press and those not familiar. Missions change and the long lead times required to bring a new system to life make a cost efficient design and timely delivery almost impossible. If congress would stop force feeding things we don’t need, stopping and starting things we do with their biannual, never ending funding games and allow programs to follow a path more like what civilian programs do we would be much better off. – – – Few big programs whether civilian or military are free from problems, i.e., the Boeing Dreamliner, and our most successful go through years of problems.

    • HiPowerGuy

      Ok, I agree with you. BUT, here is a question. Can we EVER get back to the time when all these layers of crap, and politics cease to allow us to be able to design, plan, build and field weapons systems in a ….reasonable time frame, and on -below budget, every again? I would think that there is a way, but, I just do not believe that anyone can step up to make it happen, as it would be career suicide. And too many Admirals And Generals count on their retirement plans to step on any toes.
      Any suggestions??

  • Sh*tterCrew

    I find it comical reading the various posts from people who really have no idea what they are talking about. Here are some real facts people.
    First of all, the 53 K is like the 53 E in only two ways; in the “look” and the nomenclature. Every other aspect is new and redesigned. It is NOT an “upgraded” E. It is a 100% new aircraft with all new design and technology that just happened to “look” like the 53E and to get named a “53”.

    Prt 1.

  • Sh*tterCrew

    Many of you have tossed around “comparisons” of various aircraft vs. the 53K. Much of your data is wrong or misleading. You see, the spec rating for most aircraft are for max payload in optimum conditions. This does not accurately reflect real world capabilities. It does not even take into consideration the w eight of fuel, gear and crew. The 53 K rating of “27,000 lbs.” of CARGO payload that most of you have quoted is just that, Cargo, and cargo at range and at alt/temp. This was one of the design requirements for Sikorsky when developing this aircraft. The CH53K “Will conduct an unrefueled mission of 110 nm radius with a 27,000 lbs. (12,247 kg) external payload (harder than internal) during stringent performance parameters on a “high-hot” Navy day (a pressure altitude of 3,000 feet and 91.5˚ F/915 meters/33˚ C)”.

    Prt 2.

  • Sh*tterCrew

    Also remember that it CAN lift much more. “The CH-53K helicopter is capable of carrying an external load of 36,000 lbs. (16,363 kg).” The 53K has a max gross weight of 88,000 lbs. (up from an original of 84,000) and an empty weight of about 35,000Lbs. That leaves 53,000Lbs to “play” with. The 53K can and will carry that 36,000Lbs max hook load and still have 17,000 lbs. left for fuel, crew, and other gear before hitting 88,000Lbs.. Let’s not forget that this is EXTERNAL load rating that is limited by the hook and airframe strength at those lifting points. This aircraft can still lift its max gross of 88,000Lbs. That is 52,000 Lbs. of internal cargo and fuel. I don’t care who you are or what fan boy “camp” you’re in, that’s a lot of weight.

    • majr0d

      You are “playing” with words. The max payload is 35k lbs.

      The max gross weight is 74k lbs according to Sikorsky (check attributes tab)

      The first CH53K hasn’t flown yet and MTOW requires a bunch of things first being a runway.

      Feel free to be a fan but stop playing with the numbers.

  • Sh*tterCrew

    The closest REAL “competitor” to the H53K in the US arsenal is the CH-47D (ICH). This Army beast by Bell is a great aircraft and is very capable, but as some have tried to speculate, it is not as powerful as the new 53K is, not even close. It has a max single point external load of 26,000 Lbs. However, a 26,000 Lbs. load under a CH-47d would put it about 600 lbs. under its max gross weight of 50,000Lbs, Just enough for three crew and a bologna sandwich, so 47s don’t usually lift even close to 26,000Lbs.

    Prt 4.

  • Sh*tterCrew

    A better direct 53K vs. 47D comparison is this; “The Improved Cargo Helicopter (ICH) is a remanufactured version of the CH-47D Chinook cargo helicopter with the new T55-GA-714A engines. The ICH program is intended to restore CH-47D airframes to their original condition and extend the aircraft’s life expectancy another 20 years (total life of 60 years) until the 2025-2030 timeframe. The program will remanufacture CH-47 aircraft, reduce the aircraft’s vibration, thereby reducing Operations and Support costs, and allow the aircraft to operate on the digitized battlefield by incorporating a 1553 data bus. The ICH will also acquire the capability to carry 16,000 pounds of external/internal cargo for a 50 NM combat radius at 4000 feet pressure altitude and 95 degrees Fahrenheit”.

    Prt 5.

    • majr0d

      Why are you comparing the old 47D that is fully fielded and not the F model against the K which hasn’t even FLOWN yet? What about the impact of performance at 25% higher altitude of Army high/hot standards (which have recently gone to 6k’, twice the Navy standard) and the higher temperature? It’s not just straight line either.

      You may also want to check out the CH47F block 2 goals of doubling the payload of the CH47 under high hot conditions again at FOUR TIMES less cost for 2020.

      A lot of CH53 proponents know the CH53. Problem is they don’t know the CH47 or want to make across the board comparisons as they ding folks they feel aren’t appropriately awed by the CH53K (that hasn’t flown yet).

  • Sh*tterCrew

    As you can see, although the CH-47D (ICH) is a very capable aircraft and it is even comparable to the CH-53E, it is not even close to the CH-53K. It is rated to carry 11,000 Lbs. less and only half the distance the 53K will. (27,000 LBS Vs. 16,000 LBS & 50 NM Vs. 110 NM) Both at very similar “High Hot” flight regimes. Oh and just to rub it in a bit more, think about this, In pure lifting ability alone the 53K can carry an entire 47D at Max Gross Weight plus 2,000 Lbs. (just sayin’).

    Prt 6.

  • Sh*tterCrew

    Although I am not a “fan” of the v-22, I know that it has a roll in the fight. Comparing a V-22 to a 53 (E or K) is like comparing an up-armored HMMWV to an M1A1. Some might say similar, but two very different rolls on the battlefield and two very distinct sets of capabilities. There are things the MV-22 can do that the 53 can’t and vice a versa. The Marine Corps wanted that way. Two distinct Aircraft, for two separate and distance rolls.

    Prt 7.

  • Sh*tterCrew

    Two of the biggest things that I am personally happy about that the 53K will do that NO other Hilo out there can do both of is take HMMWVs internally (up-armored minus the turret), and accept 463L Air Force pallets internally (the CH-47 takes 463L pallets as well but not HMMWVs and once again, not nearly the weight).

    Prt 8.

  • EJHarris

    @Sh*tterCrew – Well stated facts and positions – agree on all counts and can only hope the 53K has a good and long life in the Corps.

  • Bob Boise

    By the way, the Chinook flies at 175 nts….much faster than a 53…the CH47 is superior in every aspect, it can outlift, outmanoeuver , and stay in the air much longer. There is no comparison. Maybe you are thinking of the CH46…the baby Chinook?

  • bob Boise

    In fact, the problem with the Chinook is, it has to throttle back when it is escorted by Apaches; they cannot keep up. It also has the highest ceiling…load capacity at high elevations. That is why it is the only chopper to use in the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan.

  • bob Boise

    You might look at a few Chinook lifts:… Plus you may remember that a Chinook lifted a crashed Blackhawk off the 9500′ slops of Mt Hood a few years back.

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