NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Marine Corps is nearing the end of testing for a new heavy-lift helicopter expected to be a game-changer for the service.
The CH-53K King Stallion is on track to enter service in 2019, replacing aging and worn CH-53 Echo heavy-lift helicopters.
While the aircraft look similar and have comparable footprints, program managers said Monday at the annual Sea-Air-Space exposition that the new aircraft represents a leap forward in capability and intelligence.
“[This is] the most powerful helicopter the United States has ever fielded,” said Marine Col. Hank Vanderborght, the Corps’ H-53 program manager. “Not only the most powerful, the most modern and also the smartest.”
The King Stallion recently lifted an external load of 36,000 pounds into a hover and hoisted a Joint Light Tactical Vehicle into the air, expanding a capability envelope that is ultimately expected to see the new helicopter carrying three times the load that its predecessor could handle.
With flight tests ongoing since October 2015, the King Stallion has logged more than 800 flight hours and is headed into the final stages of testing before initial operational capability sometime in the next year.
Smart controls and a fly-by-wire system make the aircraft safer to fly and decrease the workload for the pilot, Vanderborght said.
“A month ago, I got to fly the 53K for the first time,” said Vanderborght, a CH-53E pilot by trade. “It is absolutely night and day between Echo and the Kilo. I could have pretty much flown the entire flight without touching my controls.”
That matters, he said, because in “99-plus percent” of aviation mishaps, a major cause is human error.
“In degraded visual environments, we lose sight of the ground and crash the aircraft. If you’re able to take the human out of the loop, you’re going to increase that safety factor by multiple Xs,” he said. “That’s what the 53K is going to do for the Marines.”
The CH-53K is equipped to fly so the pilot “pretty much could be sipping on a martini while the aircraft does its thing,” Vanderborght said.
All that capability comes with a price tag, but it’s not as high as some feared it would be.
In 2017, Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., raised concerns that the per unit cost for the King Stallion was climbing, to $122 million apiece in development. Program officials said the aircraft was never set to cost that much in production.
Vanderborght said the unit cost of the aircraft is now set to come in at $87 million. While that means the King Stallion will still be the most expensive helo the Marine Corps has ever bought, it’s below the service’s initial cost estimate of $89 million in production.