The first flying CH-53K King Stallion is seen May 5 at its rollout at Sikorsky's facility in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Christopher Cavas / Staff)
Sergei Sikorsky, son of company founder Igor Sikorsky, speaks to the media at Monday's CH-53K rollout. 'The H-53 has a special place in my heart,' Sikorsky said. (Christopher Cavas / Staff)
WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — To the fanfare of a Marine bandand in the presence of helicopter royalty, Sikorsky rolled out the first flying CH-53K heavy-lift test helicopter Monday, moments after Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, revealed the new aircraft’s nickname: King Stallion.
The name perpetuates the Sea Stallion monicker of the two-engined CH-53 first introduced in 1966, and the later three-engined CH-53E Super Stallion.
“It is a bird that has a very special place in my heart,” said Sergei Sikorsky, son of company founder and helicopter pioneer Igor Sikorsky.
The younger Sikorsky, now 80 and a “goodwill ambassador” for the company, was the program manager in his younger days for the CH-53G version produced for the German Army, and came to Florida especially for the rollout.
Onlookers, which included Marine combat veterans and industry partners, crowded around to get a first look at the new aircraft, the first of four flying engineering development models built here at Sikorsky’s sprawling facility set amidst the wetlands and resident alligators of the Gold Coast.
Although the King Stallion looks unmistakably like its predecessor H-53s, it features a great many improvements over the previous CH-53E model.
“This is a new aircraft,” proclaimed Col. Robert Pridgen, the Marines’ heavy-lift helicopter program manager. “We started with a clean sheet.”
The aircraft — the first Sikorsky aircraft to be entirely designed using digital tools — features three new T-408 General Electric Aviation engines, providing 50 percent power than the E model.
Pridgen ticked off the improvements and changes: new main rotor blades, new transmission, wide use of composite airframe construction, fly-by-wire digital flight controls.
The aircraft, he added, has numerous features to make maintenance and servicing much easier — fewer engine parts, better parts access, easier seat removal in the main cargo space.
The classic form of the aircraft, Sikorsky pointed out, is due to the need to fit aboard Navy ships.
“We want to carry much more, carry it higher, operate at higher temperatures,” he explained. “But we have the dimensions of the aircraft carrier, and that is the deciding factor. It is the one single engineering challenge to do the job, get the required performance, and get the aircraft small enough to go up and down the elevator.”
Since the program was re-baselined in 2009, Pridgen said, he’s “holding tight” to cost growth — “less than five percent over budget.”
The key, he pointed out, was rigorous control over requirements creep — the tendency to want to add and change features over the course of construction. “No is the first thing you have to learn to say,” he said.
Rear Adm. Cindy Jaynes, Program Executive Officer for Air Anti-Submarine Warfare, Assault and Special Mission Programs, declared the 53K “is the future for heavy lift for the Marine Corps.” Despite the budget-cutting pressure sweeping the Pentagon, she said, “there is support from both the Marines and the Navy to keep this program going forward.”
The Marines plan to buy a total of 200 King Stallions, with the first aircraft to achieve initial operating capability (IOC) in 2019.
Although the program has experience some delays, officials noted some of that time has been made up.
Asked if he was confident the 2019 IOC could be reached, Amos said it would be.
“I’m the commandant of the Marine Corps,” he told reporters after the ceremony. “I’m the eternal optimist.”