STRATFORD, Conn. — Sometime in June, the U.S. Air Force will award Sikorsky Aircraft a long-awaited contract to build the next generation of combat rescue helicopters, important aircraft that will replace an aging fleet.
The new aircraft will be a variant of Sikorsky's UH-60M, the latest Black Hawk model. Company officials said it's called the CRH-60 for the time being; an official designation will be determined by the Air Force as the first delivery approaches.
It will replace the Army's HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopter, most of which have either exceeded or will soon surpass their engineered life spans. They entered service in 1982, and 105 were built. Today, about 90 are still airworthy, according to military journals, and many of those suffer from metal fatigue.
"Those are aircraft that Sikorsky delivered back in the 1980s," said Frans Jurgens, a Sikorsky spokesman. "They have been used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they have saved thousands of lives over the decades. But now they are worn out, and there has been a requirement to replace this fleet since about the year 2000. Now, on the third try, the Air Force has succeeded, which is terrific."
Jurgens said that the new rescue aircraft will be able to fly farther and faster than the old Pave Hawks.
"Due to the criticality of this mission, the Air Force will realign about $430 million from other Air Force priorities," the Air Force said in a prepared statement last week in announcing the money needed to get the Sikorsky project off the ground.
"We have a certification that this is an effort that will go through," said U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., whose district includes Stratford. "It was a bipartisan effort, and we fought in the Appropriations Committee for this."
The Air Force is expected to award the contract by the end of June; it's worth about $7 billion over the life of the contract.
"It will have everything that the services want — greater power, range and lift capabilities," Jurgens said, "and, in short, a greater capacity to look for someone, find someone, and bring that person to safety."
The CRH-60 will have the capability to be refueled in flight, he said, and its night-mission capability will be better than the old Pave Hawks..
"It's going to be a more capable aircraft," said David "Rum" Morgan, Sikorsky's director of Air Force business development who flew a number of rescue missions as an Air Force captain years ago. "It's a whole new generation of aircraft, with the latest generation of mission avionics and the next-generation everything."
Morgan said the old Pave Hawks were designed for an 8,000-hour service life "and some of them are approaching 10,000 hours now."
It will take Sikorsky about 13 years to build all of the 112 helicopters in the contract. The first operational HH-60 will be about six years hence; Sikorsky will first have to build five test aircraft, several training simulators, support gear and such before the first production aircraft come off the line.
"We're very pleased that the Air Force is going forward with this and it's an honor to be part of this tremendous heritage of the rescue community," Morgan said. "We're going to do our level best to make sure that the Air Force gets the best aircraft that we're capable of building."