The CH-53K King Stallion heavy transport helicopter successfully completed an extensive series of tests on a helicopter carrier of the US Navy at the end of June 2020. The tests, which took place over a period of around 14 days in the Atlantic Ocean, included taking off and landing from various deck positions during the day and night under heavy weather conditions, tests of the automatic rotor folding system and various compatibility tests on board.
The transport helicopter from Lockheed Martin's Sikorsky company has thus reached one of the last milestones on the way to the upcoming deployment by the US Marine Corps. With the CH-53K, the US helicopter manufacturer is also taking part in the ongoing tender "Heavy Transport Helicopter" (STH) of the Bundeswehr.
From the beginning of June, the aircraft completed a total of more than 360 take-offs and landings on the helicopter carrier (Landing Helicopter Dock - LHD) under sometimes very demanding conditions in order to realistically test its capabilities at sea. The helicopter was flown in a wide variety of wind conditions. It was also towed on deck and in the maintenance hangar and secured using various anchoring methods in different sea conditions. During this period, the on-board maintenance crew of the CH-53K checked the feasibility of various routine maintenance activities to ensure flight operations.
"I'm very happy with the way the tests went," said Colonel Jack Perrin, program manager for H-53 heavy helicopters at US Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR). "We had the opportunity to take off and land the CH-53K during the day. We are now at a point where we have successfully worked through all the elements to safely deploy our crews and aircraft, and all of the crews were impressed with how much easier and safer it is , with the support of the fly-by-wire flight control system, to fly to the flight deck and land the helicopter. "
Major Joshua Foxton, test pilot at the "Air Test and Evaluation Squadron TWO ONE" (HX-21), was responsible for the planning and implementation of this measure and as a CH-53E pilot underlines the difference between the different generations of aircraft: "A landing on a ship at night and low light is pretty much the hardest thing we do in the Marine Corps in this area. There is practically no horizon reference and only insufficient visual indicators to be able to correctly estimate the speed of approach to the ship. In the CH-53E, we had to train for months to be able to produce safe and operational crews. In contrast, the flight control and stabilization of the CH-53K allows almost a completely automatic ("hands-off") approach and landing. So far, I have never felt so safe in this scenario and the opportunity to do other important tasks. Being able to dedicate to carrying out the mission was absolutely impressive.”
Bill Falk, director of the CH-53K program at Sikorsky, was also very satisfied: “The CH-53K has clearly proven itself during its first tests at sea and in the implementation of more than 360 take-offs and landings. The aircraft has now come one step closer to moving it.”
The U.S. Marine Corps plans to begin operational testing and preparation of the CH-53K in 2021 and to deploy the helicopter in 2023/24 for the first time. After successfully carrying out air refueling tests and testing under difficult visibility conditions (DVE), the latest tests at sea have once again demonstrated that the helicopter test program is proceeding as planned. In the coming weeks, additional flights with vehicles and heavy equipment will be carried out as internal and external loads at high altitudes and at high temperatures ("hot & high").
Positive sign for the German STH competition
In the German STH competition, the negotiation phase between the bidders and the Federal Office for Equipment, Information Technology and Use of the Bundeswehr (BAAINBw) is currently underway. A decision on the award should be made in the first quarter of next year.
Christian Albrecht, International Business Development Manager at Sikorsky, sees the successful completion of the latest test series as a positive sign for the German competition: "The testing at sea, which overlaps with the possible use of an STH in the Bundeswehr and in use with allies, shows the versatility of the CH-53K. The tests clearly show that the CH-53K is the most modern, intelligent and powerful transport helicopter on the market. The early completion of the trial phase ensures the delivery of a ready-to-use, high-performance heavy transport helicopter to the Bundeswehr."
During the recent tests at sea, the helicopter's automatic rotor folding system was also used successfully. The main rotor blades and tail rotor can be folded in less than 2 minutes at the push of a button to significantly reduce the space requirement of the helicopter. A functionality that has already been used in the current fleet of the CH-53G in the Bundeswehr for decades and as a unique feature of the CH-53K would guarantee the seamless transition in the existing infrastructure at the future STH locations in Holzdorf and Laupheim.
This would avoid lengthy infrastructure measures and follow-up costs and ensure interoperability in the deployment of the CH-53K from other helicopter locations of the Bundeswehr.
Sikorsky, together with the German technology company Rheinmetall, formed a core team of well-known German industrial companies for the STH project at an early stage. These include MTU Aero Engines, Autoflug GmbH and Hydro Systems KG. About ten percent of the production and 70 percent of the maintenance work will therefore take place in Germany.
According to current estimates, German industry benefits from an order volume of around one billion euros. In addition, up to 500 highly qualified additional jobs are to be created in Germany. East Germany could particularly benefit from the STH program, as Sikorsky and Rheinmetall are planning to build a logistics center and a flight management operation center near Leipzig.