Marine Corps Prepares New CH-53K for First Flight

Marine Corps' new MH-53K prepares for its first flight.The Marine Corps is conducting ground, humidity and endurance testing on its new CH-53K Super Stallion heavy lift helicopter slated to fly next year.

The new helicopter, designed as an upgrade to the existing CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter, is engineered to carry 27,000 pounds of cargo out to distances of 110 nautical miles, stay 30 minutes on station and then return — all while performing in high hot conditions.

The new helicopter is being developed, in part, to support special Marine Air Ground Task Force, or MAGTF, units with improved stand-off range, endurance, and cargo-carrying capacity, Marine Corps officials said.

The CH-53K is being engineered for the full range of military operations to include humanitarian and non-combat missions along with joint forcible entry missions, said Maj. Eric Purcell, a Marine heavy helicopter requirements officer.

“We’re basically putting the aircraft through the flight regimes that the flying aircraft will see and really testing out the transmissions and the dynamic components on the aircraft, the fuel systems and any subsystem on the aircraft is being put through its paces,” said Col. Hank Vanderborght, H-53 Helicopters program manager for the Naval Air Systems Command

The program is about one third of the way through its ground testing. The ground testing includes conducting high risk engine tests of the GE-408 engine.

Technical challenges have delayed plans for the first flight from this year to next year, Vanderborght explained.

“The program is progressing well, we have had technical challenges on the program and most of those are behind us. Nothing out of the ordinary for a development program I think we are beyond the wave of technical issues and on a glide slope to achieving our first flight,” Vanderborght.

Part of the challenge has involved working on the aircraft’s parts in order to ensure they can hold up for the complete 30-year service life of the aircraft, he added.

“We’re trying to make sure we have optimized the design for the life of the components. There are many gears we have to ensure that every one of those gears are optimized so that they last the amount of time that we want them to last once the helicopter is fielded,” said Vanderborght.

The CH-53K effort is not new to some programmatic struggles and delays. 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. Overall, the program plans to reach operational status by 2019, a full four years behind its original schedule.

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.

Improved Performance

The CH-53K’s payload capacity is three times that of the existing CH-53E model helicopters which can carry up to 9,000 pounds, said Vanderborght.

This can be achieved, in part, because the helicopter is being built with lighter-weight composite materials, materials able to equal or exceed the performance of traditional metals at a much lighter weight. The helicopter includes aluminum and titanium, said Michael Torok, vice president of 53K Programs for Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation.

The beam structure and skins are all composite as well, and the rotor blades are a combination of new airfoils, taper and a modification of the tip deflection of the blade, he explained.

The altitude testing on the aircraft is done in a test chamber and an important requirement for the endurance testing is to get 100 hours of flying on the aircraft on the ground before it takes its first flight in the air.

“In parallel to the first flight, we will continue to run the ground test vehicle so that if there are any issues that may come up we find them on the ground vehicle before we find them on the aircraft. Earlier you discover things, you can more affordably address them,” Vanderborght added.

Overall, the Marine Corps plans to build as many as 200 CH-53K helicopters at an approximate price of about $70 million per aircraft. The Corps plans to have a fully operational fleet of CH 53K helicopters by 2028 in order to serve out through the 2050s. The aircraft is slated to enter production in 2016.

“The CH 53K represents is not just the continuation of heavy lift capability but really a transformation of what we are going to be able to do. It is going to ensure that the Marine Corps remains our most ready force,” said Purcell.


He described a potential scenario in Afghanistan to illustrate the expected value of the CH-53K. With today’s current CH-53E heavy lift helicopter, pilots would need to fly three separate missions to deliver 9,000-pounds of supplies to three different forward operating base 30, 60 and 90 miles away – each time returning to get fuel.

“In a CH-53K you will be able to do that mission with a triple hook system attaching three different cargo loads to three different hooks on the aircraft,” he said.

The CH-53K is also being developed with what’s called a “split-torque” configuration, Torok explained. A split-torque transmission design transfers high-power, high-speed engine output to lower-speed, high-torque rotor drive in a weight efficient manner.

Split torque allows the helicopter to operate with more power without necessarily adding weight to the design.

“With the split torque you take the high-speed inputs from the engine and you divide it up into multiple pieces with multiple gear sets that run in parallel. As you split that, you can keep the amount of torque running through any path less and because you do that you can keep the weight that is needed to support that less,” Torok said.  “The other benefit of having that multiple path is it is redundancy if it is hit by a threat it is safer redundancy built in.”

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

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, Corps official said.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • BlackOwl18E

    That actually looks pretty cool.

  • William_C1

    More heavy lift is always good, and the CH-53 certainly isn’t a slacker in that department. Hopefully the Navy can get a “MH-53K” for mine-countermeasures work like the older MH-53E.

    • tiger

      Actually there are reports the Navy would like to ditch the mine sweep choppers.

    • helomech

      The Kilo is not capable of lifting any more than the Echo. The difference is performance

  • CharleyA

    Yea, it’s a beast.

  • E_Khun

    Nice to see those stealthy rotor blades in action.

    • SJE

      The rotor blades are still in development, with the contractor and the Pentagon fighting over the $25million/blade cost.

  • Losul

    $85 million each ($116 million if you include development costs) is one salty helo.

    36% over budget and 38 months behind schedule. About time this thing got airborne.

  • Pete Sheppard

    I thought the Echo had a 17500 max (sling) capacity.

  • James

    I am pretty sure it is closer to 35,000 lbs. I remember seeing LAV-25s being slung underneath an echo in the mid 90’s when I was on active duty. Granted that has been nearly 20 years ago so the wear and tear on the airframe over that time period plus the increased op tempo has likely degraded its capabilities but I find it hard to believe there has been that much degradation. I wonder if the 9,000 lb capacity being claimed in the article is in high hot conditions that have been encountered in Afganistan and the 27,000 lb capacity is the 53K’s capacity in the same conditions?

  • CidBob

    I love that “humanitarian and non-combat missions” are noted before any mention of support of combat operations.

    • blight_asdf

      “The CH-53K is being engineered for the full range of military operations to include humanitarian and non-combat missions along with joint forcible entry missions”

      Debating if “joint forcible entry missions” are so special that they do not count as vanilla “military operations”.

    • Chuck

      Well, the thing isn’t exactly a gunship, dude. If this were an upgrade to an Apache, then you’d bet your ass that combat ops would be the first thing mentioned.

  • steve

    Cool, the Marines got the Helo they need. Must have been a bitch redisgning it to be wide enough for a Humvee to be carried inside. They also don’t have to break apart aircraft pallets to fit them in the CH-53K. Sounds like a lot of capability has been added.

  • Big-Dean

    If this was a Lockhead aircraft it would only carry 400 lbs, fly 50 miles, and cost $4 Billion each, but then again it couldn’t fly until it had 20 years of development and software fixes

  • Buck

    Can’t wait until they start flying without rotor blades.

  • blight_qwerty

    Can it fly to Tehran and back?

  • Dan Foley

    Looks different but the same as the CH53A’s we had in Phu Bai RVN in the late 60’s with HMH 462

  • Jeff

    Well, I was incorrect. The max allowable load on the hook was 20,000 lbs IAW NA 01-230HMA-1 dtd 15 Apr 83. Of course that doesn’t take into consideration weather, altitude, etc.. Max gross NTE 42,000 lbs and sea level. Max gross drops as elevation increases.

  • It’s obsolete already. With the new VTOL aircraft coming online and the laser titanium printing becoming a real technology this is the last real helicopter that will be developed.
    With that said, it’s specs are impressive.

  • oblatt22

    The V-22 was supposed to make the CH-53 obsolescent. Turns out that the marines after spending all their money on a fleet of V-22s now desperately need helicopters for anything combat related not just milk runs.

    You can take this press release and replace the CH-53K with the V-22 Osprey and you would have any of the Marine press releases about the V-22 over the last 10 years.

  • NHRack

    It would be my guess that the K’s NATOPS manual is already three inches thick

  • Cpl Ski

    What ever they need to accomplish the mission .

  • Philosopher – Annon

    Is the range of only 110nm a misprint? If it is, this is a big waste of money.

  • Joe Rivera

    Love these birds and pilots,the ch53 and the 46 did a lot for us devildod in Vietnam,remembered as if it was yesterday. Great for the Corps

  • Chris V

    But can it fly upside down like the ones in the old days in Vietnam?



  • Cas20

    Of all helo’s I flew in back in the 70’s while in the USMC, I felt safest in a CH53. Funny how you never think of the danger when you are young. Still, it is one of the best !