Progress in the ongoing development of the United States Marine Corps’ (USMC) heavy lift helicopter replacement, the Sikorsky CH-53K, has been announced with the delivery of the prototype aircraft to the flight test team. This means that NAVAIR and Sikorsky pilots can begin the program of scheduled ground checks that will take place over the next year.
Production of the ground test vehicle (GTV) began in July 2011. It will undergo hundreds of hours of testing, the purpose of which is to “shake out the CH-53K helicopter’s dynamic systems by thoroughly testing and measuring the performance of the rotor blades, transmission, and engines while the aircraft is tied to the ground,” stated Michael Torok, Sikorsky’s CH-53K program vice president.
Although the CH-53K program was conceived in 2003 with development work starting in 2005, it was not until 2010 that the main rotor blade and main gear box near were developed into maturity, states the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in its Assessment of Selected Weapons Programs issued in March 2012.
Four flight test helicopters will join the testing program during 2014-2015. There is still a distance to go on this program with the low rate production decision set for late summer 2015 and an initial operating capability (IOC) not expected before 2019. In 2008, USMC directed that the acquisition should increase from 156 CH-53Ks to 200 in line with an expected increase in marine numbers from 174,000 to 202,000. However, in August 2011 it was stated that USMC numbers could fall by 20,000 starting in 2015. The GAO reports that in the same month “the contract’s schedule was re-baselined and several key production and testing events were delayed. For example, the delivery dates for the program’s engineering development models were moved back and its first flight was delayed from 2013 to 2014.” However, the announcement that the GTV is now ready was described as “an important point of transition” by Col. Robert Pridgen, program manager for heavy lift helicopters. “I am encouraged by the initial results of our testing at the component and subsystem level. Now we bring it all together. The GTV is our first dynamic system-level integration of those same components.” Partners in the fuselage manufacture include Aurora Flight Sciences, ITT Excelis, GKN Aerospace and Spirit Aerosystems.