CH-53K concept
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The U.S. Marines have a problem. They rely on their CH-53E Super Stallion medium-heavy lift helicopters to move troops, vehicles, and supplies off of their ships. But the helicopters are wearing out. Fast. The pace demanded by the Global War on Terror is relentless, and usage rates are 3 times normal. Attrition is taking its toll. Over the past few years, CH-53s have been recalled from “boneyard” storage at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, AZ, in order to maintain fleet numbers in the face of recent losses and forced retirements. Now, there are no flyable spares left.

Enter the Heavy Lift Replacement (HLR) program, now known as the CH-53K. It aims to offer notable performance improvements over the CH-53E, in a similar airframe. The question is whether its service entry delay to 2018-2019 will come too late to offset a serious decline in Marine aviation.

The HLR Program Lifts Off

Up, up, and…
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The $25.5 billion, 200-helicopter CH-53K program will define the long-term future of the US Marine Corps’ medium-heavy lift capabilities – and may be needed to save Marine aviation in the medium term.

On average, existing CH-53E aircraft are more than 15 years old, have over 3,000 flight hours under tough conditions, and are becoming more and more of a maintenance challenge with a 44:1 maintenance man-hours:flight hours ratio. Not to mention the resulting $20,000 per flight-hour cost ratio. According to Jane’s Defense Weekly, a 1999 analysis showed that the existing fleet has a service life of 6,120 flight hours, based on fatigue at the weakest point where the tail folds. The USMC expected that the existing fleet would start to reach this point in 2011, at a rate of 15 aircraft per year. The funding profile below suggests a problem for the Corps:


The Marine Corps itself is the source of the disconnect. The HLR program initially called for 156 new-build helicopters derived from the CH-53E Super Stallion design, with initial flight tests in 2010-2011, and initial operating capability (IOC) in 2014-2015. IOC was defined as a detachment of 4 aircraft, with combat ready crews, and prepared to deploy with all required equipment and spares.

In 2010, however, the Marines grew the program plan to 200 helicopters, even as they pushed its initial flight back to FY 2013, and IOC back to FY 2018. The program wasn’t experiencing problems, and no reasons were given, beyond statements concerning the program’s aggressive schedule. Further slippage has occurred since. Here’s the full timeline:

The current schedule creates a number of risks for the Marine Corps. There’s no question that pushing the CH-53K program back will leave the Marines with a dwindling heavy-lift helicopter fleet, whose size, capability, and safety are governed by mechanical realities rather than political diktat. In April 2010, the US military ran out of stored CH-53D/E airframes to refurbish and return to the front lines. In February 2011, the USMC retired its CH-53D fleet altogether.

The other risk is political. On the one hand, the CH-53K is a large program, and the farther the Marines push it away, the easier it is to cut amidst budget crises. With its heavy-lift fleet dwindling, that could be disastrous for the force. On the other hand, budgetary crises also look for programs that are late or experiencing problems, and the CH-53K is big enough to earn a lot of attention if it’s seen as screwing up. That fact that the original schedule was overly aggressive wouldn’t matter.

Was the move to push the CH-53K back an act of political negligence, to protect less critical programs like the V-22? Or was it an act of supreme prudence, which will lead to a strong program that survives precisely because it goes out and meets its targets? Opinions vary. Time will tell.

Current Status

Some assembly required
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US Navy PMA-261 is responsible for the CH-53K program, and the program manager as of February 2010 was Capt. Rick Muldoon. He had been the program manager for over 3 years, which is something of a rarity at the Pentagon.

Sikorsky is currently working under a $3.04 billion System Development and Demonstration (SDD) contract, to include 4 SDD flight test helicopters, 1 ground test airframe, and associated program management and test support. The Navy believes it will take more than that to complete the phase; time will tell. To date, Sikorsky’s industrial partners include:

The CH-53X / CH-53K

Mission example
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The CH-53K’s maximum gross weight (MGW) will increase to 88,000 pounds with external loads, versus 73,500 pounds for the CH-53E. MGW with internal loads will be 74,000 pounds, compared to 69,750 pounds for the CH-53E. It’s being designed to carry a cargo load of 27,000 pounds (13.5 tons) 110 nautical miles, operating at an altitude of 3,000 feet and an ambient temperature of 91.5 degrees Fahrenheit. This is nearly double the capacity of the current CH-53E Super Stallions, all in a helicopter that’s roughly the same size.

Those altitude and temperature qualifications matter, too, because “hot and high” conditions lower aircraft load carrying capabilities and combat radius – especially for helicopters. This reduced performance has recently been a factor during operations in Afghanistan and relief efforts in Pakistan, for instance, and has been a factor with earlier models of the C-130 Hercules as well. Figures for the CH-53K operating entirely around sea level and in cooler temperatures would be higher, but would not be double that of existing CH-53Es.

As an example of these variables at work, Sikorsky’s CH-53K brochure states that the improved CH-53K will have a maximum external load of 16.3t/ 36,000 lbs. On the other hand, an operation that carries an externally-slung load from sea level to a point 3,000 feet above sea level, with a total range there and back of 220 nautical miles/ 407 km, and 30 minute loiter at the landing zone, would have a maximum mission load of only 12.25t/ 27,000 lbs.

MRAP: RG-31, IEDed
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Even at sea level, however, increased lift capacity will be important. As the Hummer’s fundamental lack of survivability began to marginalize it on the battlefield, the Marines led the charge to field “MRAP” blast-resistant vehicle designs instead. While an up-armored HMMWV weighs about 9,100 pounds empty, the lightest Category 1 MRAP patrol vehicles check in at weights ranging from 16,000 – 31,000 pounds, and even the “light” JLTVs that will replace a large segment of the HMMWV fleet are expected to weigh 14,000 – 20,000 pounds.

Those weights mean that tactical operations to airlift mobile forces ashore beyond the beach, or within the zone of operations, will have only one helicopter available that can get the job done: the CH-53.

If the Marines think their CH-53 fleet is seeing heavy use now, just wait.

New Technologies

CH-53K concept
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In order to meet those requirements, the CH-53K will be depending on a number of new technologies. No one technology constitutes a big stretch, which is good news for the program. Instead, a host of technologies that have been developed since the CH-53E program will be refined, and used in inter-related areas. For the basic outlines of many low-risk CH-53X/CH-53K improvements, read “An Affordable Solution To Heavy Lift” [PDF] by Lt. Col. James C. Garman, an H-53 family pilot and Senior Preliminary Design Engineer in Sikorsky’s New Product Definition Group. See also this interview with former HLR program manager Col. Paul Croisetiere.

The most important new addition to the CH-53K will be its 7,500shp class GE38 engines, which have already hit 8,300 shp in ground tests. The military is hoping for 18% better specific fuel consumption than the similarly sized T64 engine, even though the engine would produce 57% more power. To improve maintenance and reliability, the GE38 is also expected to have 63% fewer parts.

Other technologies slated for the CH-53K include a “glass” [digital] cockpit that has high commonality and interoperability with existing Army and Navy helicopters, high-efficiency rotor blades with anhedral tips that are 11% wider, a cargo rail locking system; external cargo improvements, survivability enhancements, and enhancements designed to extend service life.

Changes will be made as the program progresses, and engineers get a better sense of which technologies are ready, and which would create risks to the program. For example, the CH-53K was going to use a “viscoelastic lag damper” for the rotors, in order to minimize vibration and stress. It was removed in order to speed up deployment, and a modified version of standard linear hydraulic dampers will be used instead. The Navy hopes for 2x reliability compared to the existing CH-53Es, but gave up the potential for 4x reliability, in exchange for less development risk.

Given the CH-53E’s large maintenance ratio, reliability will matter. As former HLR program manager Col. Paul Croisetiere put it in a NAVAIR release:

“Given the CH-53E’s operational costs and maintenance demands, heavy lift has built its reputation for excellence on the backs of our maintainers… We are going to take our maintainers somewhere they’ve rarely been before. Home for dinner.”

Several decades of weapon program history suggest that the odds of meeting this goal are low. Instead, the trend is that these promises are made, but more advanced and complex weapons wind up having more points of failure, and require even more maintenance. If the CH-53K program can break that cycle, it would represent a landmark success in Pentagon weapons acquisition.

Contracts & Key Events

Unless otherwise noted, all contracts are issued by US Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, MD.

FY 2013

SAR shows program cost increases; Ground Test Vehicle delivered; Flight test helicopters ordered.

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Sept 23/13: The Pentagon’s Inspector General submits a non-public report concerning the CH-53K program. Their public statement: the program has been managed appropriately, but it may not meet its February 2016 Milestone C decision date, or its revised costs.

The Acquisition Program Baseline was updated on April 24/13, to address cost growth and schedule delays. Contractor manufacturing delays and component testing failures, hence the risk of not being ready in time for the low-rate production decision, and not meeting even its revised costs. The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics is aware of these issues. Sources: OIG, “CH-53K Program Management Is Satisfactory, but Risks Remain (Project No. D2013-D000CD-0095.000)”.

July 17/13: Engines. General Electric Co. in Lynn, MA receives a $15.7 million cost-plus-fixed-fee contract to buy “time critical parts” for incorporation into the CH-53K’s T408-GE-400 gas turbine engine. All funds are committed immediately by the US Navy.

Work will be performed in Lynn, MA, and is expected to be complete in December 2016. This contract was not competitively procured pursuant to FAR 6.302-2-1(a)(1) by US Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, MD (N00019-13-C-0132).

June 27/13: Sub-contractors. Boeing spinoff Spirit Aerosystems announces a $60 million sub-contract, as a result of the #435 million order for 4 System Demonstration Test Article helicopters (q.v. May 30/13). Spirit makes the base cockpit and cabin, essentially the body of the helicopter.

Spirit will begin work during 2013 at its Wichita, KS facility, with deliveries to Sikorsky’s CH-53K prototype assembly line in West Palm Beach, FL to begin in 2014. When the helicopters are finished, they’ll enter Operational Evaluation in 2017, to verify that their performance meets projections. The contract follows over $150 million in work on 7 structures, for the first 5 prototype test helicopters and the 2 ground test frames.

Spirit recently announced work with Spintech Ventures, of Xenia, OH on a set of trademarked products called Inflexion/ Smart Tooling. The technology uses re-formable, reusable mandrels that can change states through the layup and cure phases. That helps form complex, highly integrated composite structures into large and/or unusual shapes and configurations – like full integration of skins, stringers, and frames or ribs in one step. Spirit | Wichita Eagle | Spirit re: Inflexion.

May 31/13: Hostile IG Report. The Pentagon’s Inspector General issues a report under Audit Project No. D2012-D000CD-0037.000, telling the USMC that the CH-53K’s program increase to 200 helicopters isn’t justified. The Marines politely tell the IG to stick it where Chesty can’t find it.

The Inspector General’s statement that “the Marine Corps risks spending $22.2 billion in procurement and operating and support funding for 44 additional aircraft” is a blatant error – that’s the entire 2011 program cost for 200, plus R&D. Beyond that, they complain that the USMC:

did not follow the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System Instruction and obtain Joint Requirements Oversight Council [DID: JROC] approval for the increase;

did not have requirement studies prepared to determine a procurement quantity in consideration of program affordability;

incorrectly relied on a 2008 memorandum from the Deputy Commandant for Aviation directing the increase of the procurement quantity to 200 aircraft, without support;

incorrectly used the 2010-2011 Force Structure Review’s war-gaming scenarios as justification for the quantity increase; and

did not justify or appropriately consider the impact of the Marine Corps personnel reductions effect on Heavy Lift quantity requirements.

In response, the USMC Deputy Commandant says the existing analyses do justify it, and JROC approved the 200. Then the Milestone Decision Authority approves the Marine Corps’ request to rebaseline the program with a 54% procurement cost increase over the 2005 baseline (a jump from Dec 2011 figures, if true) and formally push the Milestone C decision from December 2012 to February 2016 (later than the current August 2015). The IG wants additional comments re: the re-baselining. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but the whole process seems like an ad for the Lexington Institute’s Daniel Goure, who argues that the Pentagon’s procurement processes are an out of control overhead burden. It’s all about paper, rather than the soundness of the conclusion. And you can’t use what you learn in war games to change procurement decisions? What idiot thinks that’s a good idea? Pentagon IG Report.

May 30/13: Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. in Stratford, CT receives a $435.3 million cost-plus-incentive-fee contract modification, to buy 4 CH-53K System Demonstration Test Article helicopters. The April 5/06 System Development & Demonstration contract already included 4 test helicopters, and US NAVAIR and Sikorsky subsequently confirm that these 4 SDTA helicopters are a different set that the Marines will test during operational evaluation. The buy is structured as an additional line item under the 2006 contract, and initial funding will use $48.1 million in FY 2013 RDT&E budgets.

Sikorsky CH-53K Program VP Dr. Michael Torok says the SDTA helos will be based on the configuration of the 4th and final flight test aircraft from the 2006 contract, which is currently being assembled on the prototype production line. To date, Sikorsky has delivered 2 non-flying SDD CH-53Ks: the Ground Test Vehicle and the Static Test Article. That leaves the 4 flight test prototypes, 1 stationary Fatigue Test CH-53K, and now the 4 SDTA helicopters. First flight of a CH-53K prototype is now expected in “late 2014″ instead of Spring 2014, and this contract requires 1st SDTA delivery by September 2016. Final delivery is scheduled by the time OpEval begins in March 2017, with incentives for early delivery.

Work will be performed in Stratford, CT (17%); West Palm Beach, FL (17%); Wichita, KS (15%); Salt Lake City, UT (10%); St. Louis, MO (4%); Bridgeport, WVA (3%); Windsor Locks, CT (3%); Ft. Walton Beach, FL (2%); Redmond, WA (2%); Forest, OH (2%); Jackson, MS (2%); Cudahy, WI (2%); Irvine, CA (2%); Kent, WA (1.2%); Bristol, United Kingdom (1%); Phoenix, AZ (1%); Chesterfield, MO (1%); Los Angeles, CA (1%); Rochester, United Kingdom (1%); Buckinhamshire, United Kingdom (1%); Longueil, Quebec, Canada (1%); Cedar Rapids, IA (0.8%); Twinsburg, OH (0.8%); St. Clair, PA (0.5%), and various other locations (8.7%) (N00019-06-C-0081). See also US NAVAIR | Sikorsky

4 flight test helos

May 24/12: SAR. The Pentagon finally releases its Dec 31/12 Selected Acquisitions Report [PDF].

“CH-53K Heavy Lift Replacement Helicopter – Program costs increased $1,897.6 million (+7.1%) from $26,626.8 million to $28,524.4 million, due primarily to changing the cost estimating methodology from analogy-based to supplier bottom-up (+$1,796.6 million), use of commercial indices for materiel escalation costs (+$948.9 million), revised escalation indices (+$539.4 million), an increase in the production line shutdown estimate (+$120.7 million), and an increase in support equipment, repair of repairables, and spares costs (+$64.9 million). These increases were partially offset by decreases in other support costs (-$664.0 million), initial spares requirements (-$589.0 million), and the application of new inflation indices (-$385.3 million).”

To put the estimating into English, the program had estimated costs based on similar programs, but now they’ve gone through the chosen suppliers and built an estimate using actual costs for components and materials, plus commercial figures for raw materials etc. The result adds almost $2.85 billion to the program, and other cost jumps bring the total increase to $3.47 billion. The downward revisions to spares and support, and to inflation, prevent costs from rising over 13%.

Are the changes reasonable? We won’t know until flight testing is well underway and time has revealed real inflation costs, but there’s reason to be skeptical. It could be a case of “paper cuts now, then cost increases once production is underway and jobs in Congressional districts are committed.” We’ll have to talk to the program to even begin to judge.

SAR: program cost increases – questionable cuts?

May 17/13: General Electric in Lynn, MA receives a $7.6 million firm-fixed-price delivery order to buy critical hard tooling required to support the manufacture of the CH-53K’s GE38-1B engines. The current order involves GE38s for the CH-53K System Demonstration Test Article (SDTA) helicopters, and they’re the engine’s inaugural platform.

Work will be performed in Lynn, MA (20%); Morristown, TN (20%); Groton, CT (20%); Hooksett, NH (10%); Fort Wayne, IN (10%); North Clarendon, VT (10%); and Albany, OR (10%); and is expected to be complete in November 2014. All funds are committed immediately, using FY 2013 RDT&E budgets (N00019-10-G-0007).

March 28/13: GAO Report. The US GAO tables its “Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs“. Which is actually a review for 2012, plus time to compile and publish. Overall, expected costs have risen (q.v. March 30/12 entry), though the added cost per helicopter is only 5.6% above the baseline. The “ground test vehicle” non-flying model has been delivered, but issues with a test stand are delaying progress.

GAO points out that the design is released, but not necessarily finished. The big break in the program remains the April 2011 shift from a cost-plus award fee to cost-plus incentive fee contract, tied to specific cost and schedule goals, and associated with a much-delayed schedule. The next big event will be the beginning of system-level prototype testing in 2013.

Dec 4/12: Testing. Sikorsky delivers the 1st CH-53K Ground Test Vehicle (GTV) prototype. It won’t fly, just help test the performance of the rotor blades, transmission, and engines. The 4 follow-on flight test helicopters aren’t expected to fly until 2014-2015. Sikorsky.

GTV delivered

FY 2012

GAO report says development will need more $; Last CH-53D retired.

CH-53E lifts M113 APC

May 6/12: Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. in Stratford, CT receives a $7.8 million cost-plus-award-fee contract modification to incorporate CH-53K live fire test and evaluation. This is exactly what it sounds like – the Navy will shoot lots of holes in test platforms, and assess damage resistance.

Work will be performed at Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, China Lake, CA (80%), and Stratford, CT (20%). Work is expected to be complete in December 2018 (N00019-06-C-0081).

April 12/12: Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. in Stratford, CT receives a $25.7 million cost-plus-incentive-fee contract modification, to provide detailed maintenance plans in support of the CH-53K helicopter program. Work will be performed in Stratford, CT, and is expected to be complete in December 2015 (N00019-06-C-0081).

March 30/12: GAO report. The US GAO tables its “Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs” for 2012. With respect to the CH-53K:

“Program officials reported that in July 2011, the contract’s estimated cost was increased by $724 million to $3.4 billion. According to Defense Contract Management Agency officials, the estimated contract costs increased because of several factors including the need for additional flight test hours and spare parts, increased material costs, and design complexity. The contract was also changed from cost-plus award fee to cost-plus incentive fee for the remaining period of performance. The incentive fees are tied to specific cost and schedule goals… According to Marine Corps officials, a force structure review has been conducted to assess the required quantity of aircraft and that review determined that the requirement for 200 aircraft is still valid despite the proposed manpower reduction.”

Feb 28/12: Avionics. Northrop Grumman announces a $5.6 million Phase II contract from US NAVAIR to modify existing software for the CH-53K’s LN-251 embedded GPS/fiber-optic inertial navigation system (INS). Northrop Grumman’s Navigation Systems Division will provide updated software and engineering support for platform integration and flight tests, to both NAVAIR and Sikorsky Aircraft.

Feb 24/12: Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. in Stratford, CT receives a $15.5 million cost-plus-incentive-fee CH-53K contract modification. The program needs a condition-based maintenance plus software toolset (almost certainly ISS – vid. Oct 26/11), to integrate the helicopter’s onboard prognostics and the Navy’s fleet common operating environment maintenance computers. The contract includes installation, operation, and recurring data analysis.

Funds and work will be assigned if and as needed, and work will be performed in Lexington Park, MD (90%), and Stratford, CT (10%). The contract is expected to run until February 2018. US Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, MD manages the contract (N00019-06-C-0081).

Feb 10/12: USMC retires CH-53D. The USMC holds a “sundown ceremony” to retire its CH-53D Sea Stallion fleet, leaving only CH-53E Super Stallions. See also Aug 16/10 entry. US NAVAIR explains that the retirement isn’t immediate, but it is imminent:

“The Sea Stallion’s last mission is currently underway with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 363 supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The helicopter will be flown from Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay to its final destination at the Pacific Aviation Museum, where it will be displayed.”

CH-53D retired

Dec 19/11: Sub-contractors. Northrop Grumman announces a follow-on contract from US NAVAIR in Patuxent River, MD to define system requirements for the integration of its LN-251 embedded global positioning system (GPS)/fiber-optic inertial navigation system (INS) on the new CH-53K.

The firm touts the LN-251 system as “the world’s smallest, lightest navigation-grade embedded GPS/INS unit in its class… [whose] modular, open architecture supports additional applications and evolving requirements.”

Oct 26/11: Recognition. The CH-53K Helicopter Systems Engineering Team wins a Department of Defense Systems Engineering Top 5 Programs Award, at the annual NDIA Systems Engineering Conference Award Luncheon in San Diego, CA. US NAVAIR.

Oct 26/11: ISS Patent. Sikorsky Aerospace Services’ Integrated Support System (ISS) aftermarket software suite has received a patent. ISS integrates onboard diagnostics (vid. Sept 26/08 HUMS entry) and usage data with ground-based troubleshooting and service information. This technology is part of Sikorsky’s efforts to move toward proactive diagnostics, and ISS platforms for the Sikorsky CH-53K and S70i are under development. Future plans include expansion to other aircraft types. Sikorsky.

Oct 11/11: Sub-contractors. Thermoplastic composites firm Fiberforge announces the addition of Njord A. Rota as its CH-53K Program Manager. They explain that the Lockheed Martin veteran will lead all management aspects of Fiberforge’s work for DRS Technologies Inc. Their work includes the design, development and production of the carbon fiber composite components within the CH-53K’s Internal Cargo Handling System. Helihub.

FY 2011

GE delivers 1st engine, sees GE38 civil and military market potential as $4+ billion; Sikorsky unveils virtual reality center, FAFO experimental assembly line.

August 2011: Re-baselined. The CH-53K program undergoes a major time shift. Delivery dates for engineering development models are moved, 1st flight is pushed back to 2014, and Initial Operational Capability is moved from 2015 to 2018 (later 2019). Source: GAO.

Contract rebaselined

GE38 engine
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Aug 4/11: Engine. GE has delivered the 1st GE38 engine, for use on the Sikorsky CH-53K Ground Test Vehicle. After 2 years of testing, GE touts 57% more power and 18% lower specific fuel consumption than the CH-53E’s similarly-sized GE T64, while using 63% fewer parts.

In addition to the CH-53K SDD program’s 20 flight engines, the GE38 testing program includes 5 factory-test engines that will accumulate more than 5,000 engine test hours by 2013. GE is pushing ahead on its engine despite CH-53K delays, and expects it to have applications in the fixed wing and naval markets, alongside its helicopter potential. They see a total civil and military market potential of $4+ billion. GE.

June 21/11: Industrial. Sikorsky announces that they’ve begun assembly of the CH-53K Ground Test Vehicle (GTV), which is currently in position 4 on the line. It’s the 1st of 5 prototype CH-53Ks to be assembled at the Sikorsky Florida Assembly and Flight Operations (FAFO) facility in West Palm Beach, FL, which opened in March 2011.

Another 2 GTVs will be assembled at Sikorsky’s main manufacturing plant in Stratford, CT, making 3 ground test and 4 flight test helicopters. CH-53K ground testing is scheduled to begin in early 2012, and flight testing during FY 2014. To give one a sense of the CH-53K, its rotor hub and transmission alone weigh 15,000 pounds – about the empty weight of a UH-60 Black Hawk.

April 2011: Restructuring. The CH-53K program undergoes a major shift. The SDD contract is changed from a cost-plus award fee structure to cost-plus incentive fee contract, which is tied to specific cost and schedule goals. Source: GAO.

Contract restructured

March 22/11: Industrial. Sikorsky officially opens its new 60,000 square foot Florida Assembly and Flight Operations (FAFO) campus, establishing experimental assembly line operations for the new CH-53K heavy lift helicopter. The FAFO line introduces a set of new manufacturing technologies. It’s equipped with wireless data connections to all operator plasma data screens, uses digital operation sheets, and is outfitted with overhead power and air dropdowns, new aircraft work stands, and overhead cranes. Sikorsky, incl. video.

Feb 16/11: Sub-contractors. Donaldson provides an update regarding its Engine Air Particle Protection System, which is a critical piece of equipment in desert or dusty environments. They received the contract in September 2007:

“We built the first full-scale EAPPS in just three months following the CDR, [DID: which was August 2010]” said Sheila Peyraud, General Manager, Aerospace and Defense at Donaldson. “Developmental testing began in November 2010 to support testing of the helicopter’s GE38-1B engine in 2011. We are pleased that initial results in this phase of the program are exceeding expectations originally set during the conceptual design phase. Qualification testing will begin in May 2011.”

Jan 14/11: Industrial. Sikorsky unveils a state-of-the-art virtual reality center for the CH-53K heavy lift helicopter program, attempting to help identify production and maintenance issues before the initial build takes place by using a 3-dimensional digital environment.

Located within the engineering labs at Sikorsky’s main manufacturing facility in Stratford, CT, the virtual reality center uses sophisticated software, along with 12 cameras, a head-mounted display headset, gloves, and a gripping tool. All devices are linked to 3 computers, which comprise the “command center” for operating the system.

Nov 19/10: Sub-contractors. ITT Corporation (formerly EDO) announces that after nearly 3 years of advanced design, development, testing and manufacturing, they’ve delivered the first pair of CH-53K sponsons to Sikorsky. Each sponson is 25 feet long by 4 feet wide and 5 feet high, and fits on the helicopter’s side to house landing gear, fuel, and other mechanical and electrical assemblies.

ITT used composite materials instead of traditional sheet metal for the sponsons, and hopes they’ll provide benefits in weight, corrosion resistance, and in-flight stress tolerance. To make that work, ITT has to use advanced manufacturing technologies like electronic model control, laser-ply projection, 5-axis computer numerically controlled machining, automated trimming and drilling, and laser and ultrasonic inspection of all subassemblies. The CH-53K parts will be built at ITT’s Electronic Systems facility in Salt Lake City, UT.

FY 2010

Why was the CH-53K program pushed back 2 years?; SAR raises plans to 200; Critical Design Review passed; AAQ-29 surveillance turrets for CH-53K; No more “boneyard” CH-53D/Es left.

CH-53Ds in Hawaii
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Sept 6/10: Sub-contractors. GKN Aerospace delivers the first major CH-53K structural assembly to Sikorsky – an aft transition fuselage section that measures approximately 20′ x 9′ x 9′, built of an advanced hybrid composite, aluminum and titanium structure covered with external composite skins.

GKN Aerospace was accorded full design authority and manufacturing responsibility for the CH-53K helicopter aft transition fuselage section, cargo ramp, and overhead door structural assemblies in 2007. Structural design is carried out by the GKN Aerospace Engineering Development Center in Nashville, TN, and manufacturing of over 1,000 separate components takes place at the Company’s plant in St. Louis, MO. GKN Aerospace is employing manufacturing technologies including automated fibre placement (AFP), automated trim and drill, and digital inspection. GKN Aerospace.

Aug 16/10: CH-35D plans. DoD Buzz looks at the shifting plans to replace the USMC’s 30 CH-53D Sea Stallions. The original plan was to replace them with MV-22s. At some point in 2007/08, the Marine Corps formally decided replace their aging CH-53Ds with CH-53Ks. But now USMC Lt. General Trautman is saying that he wants an east coast and a west coast MV-22 squadron to replace the CH-53Ds in Afghanistan, and “When I can do that, that’ll be the start of getting CH-53 Delta out of the way.”

Exactly what “out of the way” means is ambiguous. If it means out of service, DoD Buzz correctly notes that this raises questions about the USMC’s support for the CH-53K, and would seem to be better news for the MV-22. If it means “shifted back to Hawaii while MV-22s serve in Afghanistan,” that would be something else. The exact meaning isn’t 100% clear in the article.

Aug 3/10: CDR. Sikorsky announces a successful Critical Design Review for its CH-53K, following a week-long meeting in late July that included representatives from the military, Sikorsky, and 21 industrial partners. At the review, the CH-53K team had to demonstrate that their design meets NAVAIR’s system requirements. System-level performance projections indicate that all 7 Key Performance Parameters (KPPs) will be achieved with adequate risk mitigation margin built-in. Over 93% of the design has been released for manufacturing, and the final design definition concludes, the next step involves initial prototypes and testing.

The overall program CDR follows previous efforts including a System Requirements Review (SRR), System Functional Review (SFR), System Preliminary Design Review (PDR), 77 supplier-level CDRs, 64 supplier and internal software reviews, and 16 sub-system CDRs. Sikorsky VP and CH-53K Chief Engineer Mike Torok offers an update of other preparations:

“Parts are being made throughout the supply base and at our new Precision Component Technology Center; test facilities are being fabricated and prepped for installation in our recently opened ground test facility; the integrated simulation facility is marching toward a late 2010 opening, already having received the first increment of software for the aircraft; and the final assembly facility in West Palm Beach is being prepared to start building the ground and flight vehicles early next year. It’s time now to prove out our design and show that this helicopter system will indeed meet the war fighting requirements of the USMC…”


June 28/10: Sub-contractors. Raytheon Co. in El Segundo, CA received a $26.5 million firm-fixed-price delivery order for 50 forward looking infrared devices that will be fitted to CH-53E (42) and CH-53K (8) helicopters. Discussions with corporate representatives confirm that these will be AN/AAQ-29 turrets, using a 480 x 640 element, 3-5 micron wavelength indium antimonite infrared detector, and a 2 field of view telescope on a 12-inch diameter turret.

This is a follow-on to a previous order. Work under this basic ordering agreement will be performed in El Segundo, CA, and is expected to be complete in June 2012. $530,000 will expire at the end of the current fiscal year, on Sept 30/10 (N00019-10-G-0018).

June 4/10: No more CH-53D/Es. US NAVAIR announces that it has delivered the last available CH-53s from storage at AMARG in Tucson, AZ. The last H-53E to come out of desert retirement was delivered to Marine Helicopter Training Squadron 302 on May 7/10, while the last CH-53D was delivered April 16/10.

Since the start of the program in August 2005, FRC East H-53 artisans have inducted and completed 10 of the heavy-lift helicopters. The team delivered 8 CH-53Es and 2 CH-53Ds, some of which had been idle for as many as 11 years, ahead of schedule and under budget. Each helicopter still took about 25,000 total work hours for all testing, modifications, and maintenance. Sikorsky ended CH-53 production in 1999, so AMARG was the last remaining source of airframes.

Boneyard out of CH-53s

May 10/10: Engine. Flight International reports that even though the CH-53E is delayed, GE remains committed to delivering the 7,500 shp class GE38-1 engine on schedule. The firm sees re-engining opportunities and related sales beyond the CH-53K, so they’ve begun delivering GE38s for ground tests years before airframes become available for flight test.

As of Feb 15/10, GE had recorded 176 engine starts and 177 operating hours, with sustained power of 7,760 shp and peak power of 8,300 shp. April 2010 saw delivery of a 2nd engine for ground tests.

The article is less positive about the CH-53K’s odds of winning the German/French heavy-lift helicopter program. Apparently, Germany wants a helicopter that will fit key vehicles internally, not underslung. Ultimately, the question will be whether Germany can afford to develop what it wants, can find it elsewhere, or is forced to remove some requirements.

April 29/10: Why the delay? DefenseTech reports that the USMC has pushed back the initial flight date of the CH-53K by 2 years to FY 2013, and Initial Operational Capability by 3 years to FY 2018, “with little concrete justification beyond an ‘overly aggressive initial program schedule’ “, and while stressing that the program has not run into technical problems. Craig Hooper writes:

“The CH-53K was an unsung showpiece for those preaching the virtues of incremental development, and, as a result, appetite for the platform has grown by about 30 percent, with the program of record expected to increase from 156 aircraft to 200. But, in the process, the CH-53K has become something of a MV-22-killer. Is this the problem?… In late 2009, the Marine Corps decided to go with the CH-53Ks to replace their 40-year old CH-53D fleet (MV-22 Ospreys were originally slated to replace the CH-53D). At about the same time, Israel decided to forego the Osprey for the CH-53K, killing the Osprey’s best hope of snaring an international buyer. And with the Osprey 65% availability and the MV-22s high operating costs of about $11,000 dollars an hour… worse, studies from the Pentagon demonstrated that a CH-53K-equipped big-deck amphib provided a lot more logistical support for embarked Marines than the MV-22… Slowing CH-53K development will… prevent real-data comparisons between platforms… [until] a second multi-year MV-22 contract gets signed in FY 2013. Even worse, slowing the CH-53K schedule raised the program price by at least $1.1 billion dollars, raising the per-unit price… Why slow a program that stands to be a high-demand showpiece with potential markets in Israel, Germany, France, Turkey, Singapore and Taiwan?”

Asked for a response, US MARCORSYSCOM said that US NAVAIR was the only agency that could respond; NAVAIR did not respond to DID’s simultaneous inquiry.

April 1/10: SAR – Program grows. The Pentagon releases its April 2010 Selected Acquisitions Report, covering major program changes up to December 2009. The CH-53K is included, because the Marines want more of them – but there’s a self-imposed catch:

“CH-53K – Program costs increased $6,817.8 million (+36.4%) from $18,708.3 million to $25,526.1 million, due primarily to a quantity increase of 44 aircraft from 156 to 200 aircraft (+$3,108.9 million), and increases in other support costs (+$749.7 million) and initial spares (+$456.2 million) associated with the quantity increase. Costs also increased due to a three-year delay in the procurement profile shifting initial purchases from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2016 (+$1,148.4 million), schedule growth attributable to funding constraints (+$669.6 million), and an increase in the cost estimate for the development contract (+$611.2 million).”

Feb 22/10: Sub-contractors. Cobham announces [PDF] a sub-contract from Sikorsky to manufacture all leading and trailing edge details and precisely locate and bond the details onto the CH-53K’s main rotor blade spar.

The work will be done by its Antenna Systems unit, which has consolidated all composites-related operations within the company. Depending on how many CH-53K helicopters are eventually built by Sikorsky for the US Marine Corps, the contract could be worth up to $25 million.

Jan 22/10: Industrial. Sikorsky formally opens its new $20 million Precision Components Technology Center, as part of United Technologies Corp.’s $130 million investment the CH-53K program.

The center currently employs 8 people, and was designed to allow the development of new product lines with “zero setup time” and quick changeover from one component to another. The center will produce major dynamic components of the CH-53K helicopter such as rotating and stationary swashplates, main and tail rotor hubs, and main rotor sleeves. The equipment in the center has the capability to produce any precision rotor and drive system dynamic component, including earlier-model configurations, and forgings machined there can be up to double the size of previous on-site limits. Sikorsky release.

Jan 7/10: IDR. Sikorsky announces the wrap-up of its Integration Design Review for the CH-53K, in preparation for the Critical Design Review coming in 2010. The event included industrial team members , and personnel from US NAVAIR and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Risk reduction initiatives on the critical split torque main gear box and the advanced main rotor blade are done, and 2010 will also hold a Technology Readiness Assessment. Initial Operational Capability is currently slated for early 2016.

Established features of the CH-53K helicopter currently include a joint-interoperable glass (digital screens) cockpit; fly-by-wire flight controls; 4th generation rotor blades with anhedral tips; a low-maintenance elastomeric rotor head; upgraded engines; a locking cargo rail system; external cargo handling improvements; survivability enhancements; and design for reduced operation and support costs. Sikorsky release.

FY 2009

CH-53s flying at 3x planned usage; 1st GE38 engine test; VELD removed from the design; Sub-contractors picked.

CH-53E, Cobra Gold 2002
(click to view full)

July 28/09: Engine. The GE38 team holds a ceremony at General Electric in Lynn, MA, celebrating the completion of the first full GE38 engine test. This first engine test, which began June 24/09, focused on basic engine checkout and risk reduction. All engine test parameters were within predicted values.

SDD phase testing will include 5 ground-test engines that will accumulate more than 5,000 engine test hours, plus production of 20 flight-test engines for the CH-53K development helicopters (each helicopter carries 3 engines). NAVAIR release.

May 7/09: Sub-contractors. Curtiss-Wright Corporation announces a contract from Sikorsky to develop and supply data concentrator units for the CH-53K. Curtiss-Wright’s system consists of 2 data concentrator units (DCUs) that will receive and provide various avionic and air vehicle discrete, digital and analog inputs for monitoring, processing data and controlling various CH-53K subsystem components.

Curtiss-Wright’s Motion Control segment will develop and manufacture the DCU systems at its newly-opened City of Industry, CA, facility. The initial contract runs through 2011 with the production phase starting in 2013. The contract has a total potential value of $22 million when development and all aircraft production options and phases are completed.

April 21/09: Sub-contractors. Curtiss-Wright Controls Inc., announces a contract from United Technologies subsidiary Claverham Ltd. (a Hamilton Sundstrand Flight Systems business unit) to provide multi-channel linear variable displacement transducers (LVDTs) for the fly-by-wire (FBW) systems controlling the main rotor and tail rotor on the Sikorsky UH-60M Upgrade and CH-53K helicopters.

The LVDTs are special pressure sealed linear displacement transducers that are embedded in Claverham’s Primary Flight Control Actuators. The transducers provide electrical signals that are proportional to the position of the hydraulic actuator rod, and the actuators change pitch angles on the main and tail rotors in response to the pilot’s commands.

These two programs have a potential contract value in excess of $20 million over a 15-year period, with shipments expected to begin in 2009. The company will supply these products from its Christchurch, UK operation.

March 30/09: GAO. The US GAO audit office delivers its 7th annual “Defense Acquisitions: Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs report, which looks at 47 programs including the CH-53K HLR. The CH-53K stands out, as one of the few programs to show lower R&D projections (from $4.23 billion to $4.17 billion) and estimated delivery time (2 months early) since its 2005 baseline. The truth is, the Marines have little choice. The time crunch has already begun:

“According to program officials, all available decommissioned CH-53E helicopters have been reclaimed… Currently deployed CH-53E aircraft are flying at three times the planned utilization rate… The program intends to manufacture up to 29 of the 156 total [CH-53K] helicopters (19 percent) during low-rate initial production at the same time that it is conducting initial operational testing. While concurrent testing and production may help to field the systems sooner, it could also result in greater retrofit cost…”

That’s likely, since a number of requirements and systems have been shelved, in order to deliver the helicopter on time:

“Both of the CH-53K’s current critical technologies, the main rotor blade and the main gearbox, are immature and are expected to be fully mature following the low-rate initial production decision in 2013. The program replaced a third technology, the viscoelastic lag damper, with a modified version of an existing [linear hydraulic damper] technology. During preparations for the preliminary design review, it was discovered that maturing system engineering tasks would potentially require additional cost and time. As a result, the program eliminated noncritical requirements to contain costs and delayed the preliminary and critical design reviews and low-rate initial production decision.”

Feb 8/09: Sub-contractors. BAE Systems announces contracts from Sikorsky Aircraft for development and initial deliveries of CH-53K Cockpit Seats and Cabin Armor Systems, and for integration of the CH-53K’s fly-by-wire flight controls. BAE Systems efforts will include design, development, testing, qualification, and delivery of initial systems to support the flight test and ground test aircraft. Follow-on contracts would be placed for production orders and spares.

The seats will be based on BAE Security & Survivability Systems S7000 armored, crashworthy seats, and first deliveries of both seats and cabin armor are scheduled for 2010. The total value of the programs is estimated at approximately $90 million through 2022, if 156 CH-53K aircraft are built.

FY 2008

PDR successful; Sub-contractors picked.

Iraq: CH-53E lifts UH-60
(click to view full)

September 2008: PDR. The CH-53K program conducts a successful Preliminary Design Review. Source.


Sept 26/08: Sub-contractors – HUMS. Goodrich announces that it has been picked to supply its IVHMS Health Usage and Monitoring Systems (HUMS) for the CH-53K. HUMS are embedded sensors within the aircraft’s key components, like engines. They monitor these systems, and can often tell if things are beginning to wrong inside before something actually breaks.

Avoiding breakdowns, and helping to pinpoint problems faster if something does break, saves money. Further savings can be had by using HUMS in conjunction with advanced maintenance and fleet management software. Once a baseline of good data is available, it becomes possible to switch from “do it just in case” maintenance and overhaul checklists, to “condition-based maintenance” that’s performed only when necessary, based on a combination of HUMS readings and predictive software.

Goodrich has carved out a strong market position in this area, supplying HUMS systems of varying complexity for a number of US military helicopters. IVHMS will supposedly build on earlier IMDS systems implanted in the CH-53E, but will be broader in nature, monitoring “the CH-53K helicopter’s entire mechanical drive train from the engines to the rotor system, and hundreds of aircraft systems.”

Sept 2/08: Sub-contractors. Breeze-Eastern Corporation announces that Sikorsky has picked them to provide the CH-53K’s Internal Cargo Winch System. The initial contract requires the delivery of 5 units for the System Design and Development phase.

Breeze-Eastern has worked with Sikorsky in this area to supply the S-92, and to retrofit USMC CH-53Ds. Bloomberg.

May 30/08: Camber Corp. in Huntsville, AL received an $8.6 million cost-plus-fixed-fee contract for program management, acquisition management, and engineering and technical services in support of the CH-53D, CH-53E, MH-53E, and CH-53K.

Work will be performed in Patuxent River, MD and is expected to be complete in Nov

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