STAMFORD, Conn. — It doesn't look much different than its predecessor, but when Marine Corps pilots get their hands on the controls of Sikorsky's new CH-53K heavy lift helicopter, they will quickly realize the aircraft is more powerful and can do more than the CH-53E they currently fly.
Dignitaries on Monday got their first look at Stratford-based Sikorsky's newest military helicopter during a ceremony at the company's development flight center in Jupiter, Fla.
The CH-53K, called the King Stallion, is an all-new aircraft -- not a mere upgrade of the CH-53E Super Stallions, Sikorsky officials said -- although they look similar. The new helicopter, which will be ready for Marine use in 2019, is equipped with three new, 7,500 horsepower GE Aviation T408 engines that provide 57 percent more power than the CH-53E but about 20 percent lower fuel consumption, according to Sikorsky.
The Marine Corps wanted a new aircraft which would fit the amphibious ships that transport the CH-53E -- along with troops and supplies -- to battle zones. The Marines are getting an aircraft that will lift more than three times the load (by external sling) than the CH-53E, Sikorsky officials said.
The CH-53K is one of the first all-digitally designed helicopters, according to Sikorsky, enabling the company to assemble the aircraft inside a 3-D virtual reality lab at its headquarters before prototype production began.
"The rollout of the CH-53K helicopter introduces a new era in Marine Corps aviation and is an exciting milestone in our company's 91-year history," Sikorsky President Mick Maurer said in a statement. "The CH-53K aircraft will effectively triple the external load carrying capacity of the CH-53E aircraft -- to more than 27,000 pounds over a mission radius of 110 nautical miles. With its 88,000-pound maximum gross weight, powerful new engines, lightweight composite structure, new rotor blades and fly-by-wire flight controls, the CH-53K will have the means to move troops and equipment from ship to shore, and to higher altitude terrain, more quickly and effectively than ever before."
The design of the helicopter made use of digital-design technology, Maurer said.
"Our `build before you build' approach allowed our engineers to work `inside' the helicopter, to verify assembly designs and correct issues long before discovery and expensive rework on the assembly line," he said.
The Navy intends to order 200 CH-53Ks for the Marines, replacing over time the CH-53E fleet that Sikorsky built and delivered in the 1980s. The CH-53E does not meet the need to transport more supplies from ship to shore and to higher altitude, according to Sikorsky, a division of Hartford-based United Technologies.
A $3.5 billion system development and demonstration contract awarded to Sikorsky in April 2006 called for four test flight aircraft with the first to fly in late 2014 with the second to be unveiled Monday. The other two are nearing completion.
In June 2013, the Navy ordered four additional aircraft to the SDD contract. To be delivered by 2017, the aircraft will enable the Marines to flight-test the CH-53K's ability to perform a mission, according to Sikorsky.
Sikorsky began full system testing of the CH-53K in April.
The CH-53E needs to be replaced as the military demands a more powerful heavy helicopter, said Douglas Royce, an aerospace and defense analyst with Forecast International in Newtown.
"It's going to have a fairly long test period," Royce said. "There will be a low rate of production at first. They'll be produced through 2028, but a lot depends on funding. It's $62 million for one helicopter."
Israel is a possible customer, as are Japan and Germany, he said.