Riding on a bus with a group of journalists through the swamplands near Sikorsky Aircraft’s Development Flight Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., we drove past an area packed with alligators, wild boars, fire ants and other creatures. While we didn’t see any wild boars, there were six or seven gators off the side of the road and mounds of fire ants that served to remind visitors to watch their step. Then, through a clearing, we came upon a fenced-in, mosquito trap-lined “diamond in the rough” – the CH-53K ground test vehicle (GTV). Anchored to the ground, the GTV sits in a site that has served the development of a number of Sikorsky products, including the S-92 and S-76D.
CH-53K during rollout ceremony. Photos by Andrew Parker
There have certainly been some delays involved with the CH-53K program – as first flight was pushed back from late summer/fall 2014 to the end of the year due to a gearbox issue, for example – but this leviathan of a helicopter is now transforming into something you can touch, hear and visually comprehend – then watch take to the air before the year is over.
The CH-53K ground test vehicle (GTV) sits in a fenced-in area lined with mosquito traps.
Launched in 2004 as the CH-53X, the program 10 years ago had a first flight target of 2012, with initial operating capability (IOC) projected between 2015 and 2020. In April 2006, USMC awarded a Systems Development and Demonstration (SDD) contract for two ground test airframes, the GTV and four flight test aircraft, adding four more aircraft to the SDD agreement in June 2013.
“I don’t know if you can get that thing by 2012,” observed Lt. Gen. Michael Hough, then-USMC deputy commandant for aviation, in a June 2004 Rotor & Wing article. “It might be closer to 2015 and ‘16 the way things are realistically,” he added. While it is nearly impossible to predict how long something will take a decade out, how do you keep a program that spans close to a decade involving many players and billions of dollars on track?
Col. Robert Pridgen (left) and USMC Commandant Gen. James T. Amos point to Pridgen's callsign "Sofa" during the CH-53K rollout ceremony.
Col. Robert Pridgen, NAVAIR program manager for aircraft and weapons, insists that the CH-53K team “shut down requirements creep a long time ago.” Across the program, “we re-baselined in 2009, and since then we’re holding tight to the numbers that we have agreed to,” he said, within a less-than-five-percent increase. The word no, he explained, “is the first thing you have to learn how to say” inside the program office, “and ‘so what,’ in the sense that if you want to fix something, what’s the value of fixing it?”
Requirements have been stable since 2010, and that won’t change, Pridgen remarked. “Now, we’re looking forward – there is a future path of upgrade and whenever the Marine Corps validates that requirement, we will do it.”
Since design stabilization, “we have been managing calls very well. Sikorsky has been predictable as we lay out the work that needs to be done and our schedule.”
Signatures of the people involved on the CH-53K rollout aircraft.
Add the current uncertainties of sequestration and budget constraints into the mix and there are still possibilities that could delay the program further. But USMC Commandant Gen. James T. Amos assured that all of those factors have already been built into the schedule, and – barring any unforeseen problems (which tend to occur as part of any aircraft development program, not to mention government intervention) – the CH-53K will heave itself into the skies later this year and continue along the path to operational service in 2019.
“The decisions on any delays have already been made. It’s built into the program now,” Amos said. “All that’s been settled down, the Marine Corps has put in enough money in the program under sequestration. So I think the program’s healthy right now.”
The ride through the Florida swamps to see the GTV drew comparisons – in my mind, at least – to the overall CH-53K program. The rollout represents the culmination of many years of hard work from a number of parties. Stay on the bus and Sikorsky, the military and program’s suppliers will provide the “diamond in the rough” for Marine Corps helicopter personnel. Just watch out along the way for wild boars, alligators, mosquitoes and fire ants (aka program delays, sequestration and the like) – along with those politicians in Washington.
Related: Airframe News