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Two of the U.S. Marine Corps’ new Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion helicopters are set to cross from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific Ocean supported by aerial refueling tankers as they continue initial testing of the heavy-lift aircraft.
The pair of 53Ks will depart Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina, next week and, in two separate legs, fly to the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California.
Along the way, the aircraft will demonstrate and gather data on the 53K’s ability to self-deploy by taking on gas mid-air from several pre-staged KC-130 aerial refueling tankers. So far, Marine Corps test pilots have completed aerial refueling while hauling external 27,000-pound (12,250-kilogram) loads during the day and with night vision goggles in the dark. Now they will validate that capability “at the operational level,” said Marine Corps Col. Jack Perrin, program director for CH-53 helicopters.
Initial operational test and evaluation of the aircraft began in July in North Carolina and should continue through January or February 2022, Perrin said.
Aerial refueling, which has been validated in East Coast testing, will allow the 53K “not only to forward deploy, but also to do that long-range mission where it can take that heavy external load and take it out beyond 110 nautical miles because it can get gas along the way from behind a C-130.”
“That allows the Marine Corps to have a virtually unlimited logistics footprint because we can get there and support those troops, wherever they are, vertically,” Perrin told reporters Aug. 3 at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space conference outside Washington, D.C.
During testing in North Carolina, Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron One (VMX-1) has already put its aircraft through more than 250 flight hours, Perrin said. Some of the four engineering and manufacturing development aircraft have undergone aerial refueling and other testing over the Chesapeake Bay from Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. Another fully instrumented aircraft is undergoing live fire testing to validate its ability to sustain battle damage and keep flying missions, Perrin said.
In California, VMX-1 will begin putting the aircraft through its paces in mountainous and desert terrain. During desert flying, the test pilots will test the King Stallion’s fly-by-wire flight controls and hover-hold modes in dusty, brownout conditions, Perrin said. Marines have previously validated the aircraft performance in brownout conditions at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. Now they will try the 53K’s ability to perform dusty landings in an operational context.
Landing in a degraded visual environments like brownout conditions “is the biggest threat to any rotary-wing aircraft because the pilots get disoriented; because you can’t see when you are down trying to land the aircraft, trying to pick up an external load.”
“The fly-by-wire system has taken that to the next level, where the aircraft is so stable . . . you can put it into a hover mode so it maintains that position exactly where you want it so you can hover over that load, or position yourself over the load, pick up that load and then depart in a degraded visual environment,” Perrin said.