Late last year the Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion helicopter demonstrated a key capability by lifting a Lockheed Martin F-35C fighter jet, the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command has announced. This was an important test in the type’s external load certification campaign.
The lift was conducted on December 13 at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, by a CH-53K from Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron (VMX) One. The fighter in question was aircraft “CF-1”: the first developmental example of the F-35C.
The test involved VMX-1, the F-35 Integrated Test Force, the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division’s Cargo Lab, and other organizations such as the helicopter support team from the Marine Corps’ Combat Logistics Battalion 24. As well as basic load certification testing, the lift enabled sling configuration analysis and cargo characteristics documentation. The flight trial was preceded by ground lift tests performed using a crane to verify the various attitudes of the F-35 while under the sling.
Having accrued 750 flight hours during 450 test flights between 2010 and 2016, the F-35C is no longer flyable. For the lift test the engine, outer wings and mission systems were removed, reducing its weight to 22,000 pounds. This was well within the CH-53K’s current external load limit of 27,000 pounds. The design goal for the type is 36,000lb in hot-and-high conditions, nearly three times that of the CH-53E that the “King” is to replace.
“This type of mission is precisely what the K was designed and built to do,” said Colonel Kate Fleeger, program manager for the Heavy Lift Helicopter Program Office (PMA-261) that oversees the H-53 family in Navy/Marine Corps service. “It continues to prove its value in support of Marine Corps operations, transporting equipment that no other rotary wing platform can lift.”
With increased power and fly-by-wire controls, the CH-53K represents a major improvement in capability over the CH-53E. Its primary role is to support Marine Corps assaults, lifting heavy equipment into and around the operational area. Its lifting power can also be called upon to recover downed aircraft. In September 2021 the CH-53K performed its first operational mission when it lifted a 15,000-pound Navy MH-60S Knighthawk helicopter from a 12,000-ft mountain in California.
In December the “King” entered full-rate production, having reached initial operating capability in April. Fleet deployment is scheduled for later this year or in early 2024, and full operating capability is slated for 2029. Marine Corps requirements are for 200 King Stallions.