Sikorsky Aircraft has officially unveiled the CH-53K heavy lift helicopter, the next generation in the CH-53 type series that the U.S. Marine Corps expects to begin operational service in 2019.
The US Marine Corps had been planning to upgrade most of its CH-53Es to keep them in service, but this plan stalled. Sikorsky then proposed a new version, originally the “CH-53X” and in April 2006 the USMC signed a contract for 156 aircraft as the “CH-53K” valued at $18.8 billion with deliveries to be completed by 2021. The Marines were planning to start retiring CH-53Es in 2009 and needed new helicopters very quickly as some aircraft would start hitting their structural life limits in 2011-12.
The new helicopter will triple the external load carrying capacity of the CH-53E aircraft to more than 12,000 kilos over a mission radius of 110 nautical miles. With its 40,000 kilo maximum gross weight, powerful new engines, lightweight composite structure, new rotor blades and fly-by-wire flight controls, the CH-53K will have the means to move troops and equipment from ship to shore, and to higher altitude terrain, more quickly and effectively than ever before.
For increased lift, Sikorsky developed the largest, most technologically advanced main rotor blade the company has ever produced. At 35 feet span length, and almost three feet chord width, the all-composite blade has 12% more surface area than the previous version.
The aircraft’s major airframe sections were built from strong, lightweight advanced composite materials by Aurora Flight Sciences, Exelis, GKN Aerospace and Spirit Aerosystems.
The CH-53K is one of the first all-digitally designed helicopters. This approach enabled Sikorsky to assemble the aircraft inside a 3D virtual reality lab at its Stratford, Connecticut, headquarters before prototype production began.
Sikorsky President Mick Maurer said
Our ‘build before you build’ approach allowed our engineers to work ‘inside’ the helicopter, to verify assembly designs and correct issues long before discovery and expensive rework on the assembly line.
Back in April, Sikorsky began powered ground tests of the CH-53K aircraft systems, such as rotors, drive, electrical, hydraulic, avionics and flight controls. Hundreds of hours of powered ground tests will prepare the CH-53K team for first flight at the end of 2014, and the start of a three-year flight test program.