The Perspective of the US Government’s Chief Test Pilot on the CH-53K

By Robbin Laird

The CH-53K is in the final phase of getting ready to enter into service.

The final phase of preparation includes the wrap up of testing at West Palm Beach, the conclusion of testing at Pax River, and the validation of maintenance procedures at the base, which will first receive the new aircraft, New River.

In September 2017, NAVAIR and Sikorsky signed their first production contract.

According to a PMA-261 story:

During a ceremonial signing at NAS Patuxent River Sept. 7, contract officers from NAVAIR and Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, a Lockheed Martin Company, signed the Lot 1 Low-Rate Initial Production (LRIP) contract for the CH-53K King Stallion.

The contract action, valued at nearly $304 million, provides the funds for two CH-53K helicopters along with engineering and integrated logistics support, spares and peculiar support equipment (i.e., unique tools and support equipment specific to the aircraft).

“This is a pivotal moment in launching the next generation of heavy lift helicopters,” said Col. Hank Vanderborght, PMA-261 program manager. “The significance of this milestone has not gone unnoticed and I am certainly proud of what this team has accomplished.”

The contract signing follows the Milestone C decision this past spring, approving the Navy’s request for the CH-53K King Stallion program to enter the production and deployment phase. Initial deliveries from Lot 1 are expected to begin in 2020, with the logistics support activities ending in 2021.

Earlier this month, the program hosted a family flight line event for the local team responsible for the development and test of the CH-53K. On Sept. 1, team members had the opportunity to see the new aircraft up close and meet with test pilots who have flown the aircraft.

During the event, Rear Adm. G. Dean Peters, program executive officer for Air Anti-Submarine Warfare, Assault and Special Mission Programs (PEO(A)), and Col. Vanderborght thanked the government-industry team for their work.

Earlier this summer, the aircraft arrived at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland; the first of seven assets scheduled for relocation from Sikorsky’s Development Flight Center in West Palm Beach, Florida.

The transition supports further testing required for upcoming acquisition milestones, specifically Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) and Initial Operational Capability (IOC).–k-production-contract/article_eeef9e0d-f366-536d-b282-658262eee1a2.html

In my discussion with LtCol Jonathan Morel, USMC, the CH-53K Government Chief Test Pilot and the first Marine to fly the CH-53K, during my visit to West Palm Beach on October 26, 2017, we discussed how the test process was readying the aircraft for its operational role.

In particular, we discussed the involvement of VMX-1, formerly VMX-22, in the process.

VMX-22 was set up to prepare the Osprey for its first combat engagements and has been a key player in the evolution of that aircraft. VMX-22 was based at New River, where I visited it several times, including flying on the Osprey with them as well.

The unit has been relocated to Yuma Marine Corps Air Station where they work closely with other key elements, such as MAWTS (Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One) to work not only the evolution of the new air assets but their integration into the evolution of the MAGTF.

LtCol Morel highlighted that the Integrated Test Team has included Sikorsky, the US Government, notably NAVAIR, and VMX-22 and then VMX-1.

This meant that the approach to preparation of the aircraft for service has built into it greater confidence in the aircraft not just meeting the test requirements set by the buyer, but the operational requirements of the user.

This means as well that the aircraft getting ready to join the operational force is not a prototype but a combat ready asset.

“We have already done the first operational assessment last year and this assessment fed into the milestone C decision. This operational assessment was done by VMX-1.

“We have been focused not simply on meeting the government set requirements but assessing whether we are on track to meet all our Key Performance Parameters (KPPs) as well.

“We flew the aircraft with an all government crew which included an operational test pilot from VMX-1 and myself to treat it more or less like an operational aircraft within any known constraints as part of the input to the Milestone C decision.

“We’re already doing the operational testers job to a large degree. And so, we actually end up with a lot of overlap on that regard with the operational testers and delivering a more combat ready aircraft.”

Milestone A is the process of initiating technology maturation and risk reduction.

Milestone B initiates engineering and manufacturing development.

Milestone C initiates production and deployment of a program.

LtCol Morel added that “everything that we’ve done for years, everything that we evaluate on the aircraft and looked at the aircraft, has been through the lens of, how is the aircraft going to work for us?

“If I were to leave this job and go back to the operational squadron with this aircraft, how is it going to help do the things that we need to do and how is it going to help us do them better?”

I then asked him to answer his own question.

And his answer underscored how the core function of heavy lift, which is to deliver Marines to the fight and to sustain them in the fight and to move them out of the fight, was going to improve with this aircraft.

The mission of a heavy lift helicopter for a ground force is pretty straightforward – it is to move people, equipment and supplies to where they need to be.

“I have to be able to get people and materiel to the area of interest in a timely manner and then I have to get them in safely and extract them when the time comes safely and securely as well.”

Reliability and availability of aircraft is a key consideration, and one which is a serious problem for the legacy fleet.

The K will be a much more reliable aircraft with the new maintainability built in as well as being built with modern systems and materials.

The engines and digital management systems onboard the aircraft will allow the Marines to operate the aircraft in extreme heat and altitude environments and carry up to three times as much usable payload with the aircraft.

“We’ll be able to go faster, we’ll be able to get there more reliably because of the avionic systems that are helping us get from point A to point B.

“But at the end of the day, we’re carrying more stuff.

“That means we’re using fewer aircraft to get there, I have a smaller footprint, I can act more distributed, I don’t need six aircraft in order to move this amount of stuff. I can do it with a section of two aircraft.

“Or I have to make fewer round trips back to the ship. I can minimize exposure, and build up combat power faster. To me, that’s what payload and speed give us.”

The safety aspect was underscored throughout the discussion.

LtCol Morel emphasized that with the E to perform safely required hundreds of hours of training and deploying the right people to get the job done.

“But that is not a recipe for predictable success.

“The fly by wire system delivers levels of automation and control, which provide for much great built in safety performance capabilities.

“The aircraft enables us to do the mission properly as opposed to waving off, taking several chances to get in, not being able to land where I wanted to because there is too much of a dust cloud and I have to land over there and the troops are scattered throughout the area of interest.

“With this aircraft, I can deliver the load the exact spot required, safely, and every single time.

“And that’s because of the fly by wire system of the aircraft.

“We can be in quickly and out.

“Quite honestly, other than getting aircraft out of the hanger and onto the flight line ready to launch, the hardest thing we do is land our cargo and troops in the desired location under any conditions.”

I asked him what was his single most pleasant surprise operating the aircraft?

“How well the aircraft flies itself.

“We say that in the simulator, but what you get in the sim is what we are seeing as we test and operate the aircraft.

“The position-hold capability of the aircraft is amazing.

“It’s unbelievable to me how perfectly still the aircraft sits on a normal ambient, normal weather day outside in the hover mode.

“There’s not a pilot out there who can actually hover better than what the aircraft’s doing by itself right now.

“The aircraft can hover over a spot, just perfectly still.

“The guys are hooking up the load, giving you the thumbs up. It’s really unbelievable.

“This means that the tasks which we need to do that requires a steady platform, whether it’s taking off or landing on the ship, coming in to pick up external cargo and dropping off cargo in tight spaces or simply stabilizing the aircraft and getting on the ground quickly to drop the ramp instead of wasting time trying to stabilize, all of these tasks will be enhanced by the capabilities of the K.”

In a March 24, 2016 NAVAIR press release, the comments of the VMX-22 now VMX-1 pilot were highlighted:

LtCol Foster Carlile took his place in Marine Corps aviation history as the first operational tester to fly the CH-53K helicopter Mar. 23 at Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation’s Development Flight Center in West Palm Beach.

Carlile, a Naval Test Pilot School graduate, is currently with Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron (VMX) Twenty-Two in New River, N.C. and has been a CH-53E pilot for 16 years, primarily with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 464.

He took off at 12:15 p.m. in Engineering Development Model (EDM) 1 to experience the direct mode flight control system, as well as the primary flight control system (PFCS) maneuvers. This marked the last test flight in direct mode, which included hover points and out to 140 knots with 15 degree angle-of-bank turns.

The PFCS work up included 120 knots, climbs and descents, and hovering pedal turns.

“What an experience; I’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time,” said Carlile. “I’m honored to have been able to fly the aircraft at such an early stage of the test program.

“All in all, the aircraft flew very well. I have no doubt the CH-53K will carry on as the work-horse of the fleet Marine force. I was very impressed with the direct mode system. It was much easier to fly than the comparable mode in the CH-53E. The aircraft vibration levels and the feel of the aircraft seemed very similar to the CH-53E.”

The flight test ran for one hour, taking EDM1 over the 30-flight hour mark since it first took to the skies on Oct. 27, 2015.

 This article was first published on February 8, 2018.