Sikorsky Chief Engineer Talks Future of CH-53K at AIAA SciTech Forum

By S.L. Fuller | January 8, 2018
Send Feedback

The Sikorsky CH-53 King Stallion lifts a 27,000 pound external load. (PRNewsFoto/Lockheed Martin)

The Sikorsky CH-53 King Stallion lifts a 27,000 pound external load. Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin

Sikorsky is about to become disrupted by its own product. Andreas Bernhard, chief engineer on the Sikorsky CH-53K, said during American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ (AIAA) SciTech Forum in Kissimmee, Florida, that in the 2020s, the Black Hawk would no longer be the manufacturer’s main product.

“Since 1974, Sikorsky has been a Black Hawk company,” Bernhard said. “In the 2020s, Sikorsky will generate more revenue with the CH-53K than it will with the Black Hawk. And hand-in-hand with that, we’re delivering a capability to our primary customer, the United States Marines, that is truly transformative and disruptive.”


Charged with the task of developing an aircraft with a three-fold performance increase compared to its predecessor, Sikorsky’s process has been new, Bernhard said. The company used software tools CATIA V5 and LCA in a way that eliminated the use of paper. That makes the CH-53K Sikorsky’s first paperless design, according to Bernhard.

“It’s all model based; there are no more drawings,” he said. “Our engineering building materials and our manufacturing building materials are fully coupled and, therefore, provide a seamless integration to the supply chain.”

The design for the Marine Corps’ King Stallion is pretty much brand new. Bernhard said that the only thing the K model has in common with the E model “is the shadow on the ground.” He continued to say that the CH-53K could only have been developed inside the digital environment.

Using the digital tools, Bernhard said more than 1,000 work instructions were assembled and tested before the first parts were put together. Some areas of development were more efficient using the digital tools. Bernhard said that, for example, rate of rework in 20 miles of harness assemblies was more than 60% lower than it has been in the past.

“So for us, this was truly a transformative event, and disrupted the way we design and build helicopters in order to deliver an aircraft to the customer in a short lead time, manageable cost and to deliver the three-fold increase in performance,” Bernhard said.

The CH-53K is currently in the low-rate initial production stage, contracted by the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command.

Some other technologies that the rotorcraft industry might consider disruptive are items Sikorsky has been employing for years. The manufacturer has been downloading health management system data since 2006.

Bernhard explained that since the company delivered its first S-92 in 2006, it has implemented a nightly data download (with permission from the customer). That, he said, amounts to more than 1.1 million flight hours from 300 aircraft, more than 30 terabytes of native data and more than 140 terabytes of processed data.

And every helicopter Sikorsky has delivered since 2006 has that capability, Bernhard said.

“What we have done over these past 10 years is develop the automated tools, the data mining, the decision-support technologies such that we can allow our operators to fly longer hours with less downtime and lower maintenance costs,” he said.

Chris Van Buiten, VP of Sikorsky Innovations, told R&WI in May 2017 that the company had its Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA), an autonomous S-76, on a certification path. Bernhard said that is an ongoing effort to certificate autonomous aircraft for manned operations to give operators a choice.


File photo

“Sikorsky’s vision here is to really change how we look at deploying aircraft to provide decision making assistance to the pilots, the operators, and give the fleet commanders the opportunity to either have pilots in the loop, mission operators in the loop or, in the grand sense, strategic operations where all these aircraft can be deployed semi-autonomously,” Bernhard said.

While most developments at Lockheed Martin related to artificial intelligence is kept tightly under wraps at Skunk Works, Bernhard did close his presentation at the AIAA forum with the subject. One initiative currently in the works is to optimize efficiency internally at Lockheed Martin as a whole. Some form of artificial intelligence could be used to connect the corporation, across all its domains, to increase information sharing.

Another initiative, Bernhard explained, is using artificial intelligence to help humans make decisions. A helicopter pilot, he said, is responsible for so many things in the cockpit — communications, navigation, flight controls, the task at hand and other responsibilities. Instead of starting from scratch when problem solving, what if artificial intelligence could narrow down the options for the human?

“If you let artificial intelligence do the right unsupervised unstructured learning to help you with that decision making … that’s a game-changer,” Bernhard said.

Receive the latest rotorcraft news right to your inbox