Sikorsky has begun the tooling process for the U.S. Marine Corps’ next-generation CH-53K heavylift helicopter, while General Electric is preparing to run the intended powerplant for the first time next January. Those events keep the program on track for a first flight scheduled for the first quarter of 2012. Around 90 percent of the supplier base has been selected.
Sikorsky received a contract for the CH-53K in April 2006. The Marine Corps needs the aircraft to replace the current CH-53E fleet, now heavily in use in the “Global War on Terror.” IOC for the CH-53K is slated for September 2015, with FOC planned for 2021. Despite service life extension programs, the “Echo” won’t last much beyond 2020. Moreover, the Marines have changed the emphasis of their missions, from ship-to-shore operations to an expeditionary force, for which the CH-53E no longer serves as the ideal platform.
While the CH-53K looks superficially similar to its predecessor, its designers addressed all of the USMC’s future requirements, and at the same time added state-of-the-art systems. Three 7,500-shp General Electric GE38-1B turboshafts will provide the power to a new gearbox and rotor hub. All-new composite rotor blades based on those fitted to the S-92 were already successfully tested in the hover test rig and wind tunnel. Other features include an “X”-shaped tail rotor, large fuselage sponsons and a five-screen Rockwell Collins cockpit.
A redesign of the fuselage makes the cabin 12 inches wider. While seemingly insignificant, it crucially allows the “K” to admit standard 461L pallets. Sikorsky designed the CH-53K to match the deck footprint of the CH-53E, which is surprisingly small due to blade- and tail-folding.
The company is building seven airframes in the initial batch: four flyers and one each for ground, static and fatigue tests. Sikorsky will initially undertake flight testing at the company’s West Palm Beach facility in Florida, before moving the trials to the Navy’s principal test center at Patuxent River, Maryland. Low-rate initial production begins in 2012.