First CH-53K rolls out of Sikorsky’s Connecticut plant

Avatar for Dan ParsonsBy Dan Parsons | September 30, 2021

Estimated reading time 7 minutes, 16 seconds.

Sikorsky recently completed the first CH-53K at its Stratford, Connecticut, plant where production of the heavy-lift aircraft is set to ramp up to meet the U.S. Marine Corps fleet requirement of 200 aircraft. 

A ceremony marking the completion and delivery to the Marine Corps was held Sept. 24 at the Connecticut plant where Sikorsky also builds the UH-60 Black Hawk. 

Six CH-53K aircraft are currently being built in at Sikorsky’s Connecticut plant, with another 36 in various stages of production. Lockheed Martin Photo
Six CH-53K aircraft are currently being built in at Sikorsky’s Connecticut plant, with another 36 in various stages of production. Lockheed Martin Photo

The most recent CH-53K is also the first helicopter designed tip-to-tail, from design to manufacturing with a digital thread, which should increase mission availability and reduce both pilot and crew workload, according to Sikorsky, which is owned by Lockheed Martin.

“This Connecticut-built CH-53K aircraft is a testament to the Sikorsky legacy of building safe, reliable rotorcraft for decades,” Sikorsky president Paul Lemmo said in a prepared statement. “But the way we design, test and build helicopters has transformed. Our employees are using digital tools and other advanced technologies such as manufacturing simulation and 3D laser inspection technology. This factory transformation is a model for all future helicopter programs at Sikorsky.”

This is the first CH-53K helicopter to roll off the Stratford, Connecticut production line. The next King Stallion from Stratford is scheduled for delivery in early 2022. Since October 2020, Sikorsky has delivered four operational CH-53K King Stallion heavy-lift helicopters to the U.S. Marine Corps in Jacksonville, North Carolina (the fourth was delivered Sept. 29). Those aircraft and the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) aircraft were assembled at Sikorsky’s flight test facility in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Six CH-53K aircraft are currently being built in at Sikorsky’s Connecticut plant, with another 36 in various stages of production, including nine for which long-lead time parts are being procured. 

Initial operational test and evaluation of the aircraft began in July in North Carolina and should continue through January or February 2022. Four aircraft are now in the hands of VMX-1 operational and test evaluation squadron at Marine Corps Aviation Station New River in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Marine pilots and maintainers are operating the CH-53K in a fleet environment as part of the rigorous test program.

While still in operational test, the aircraft performed its first official mission Sept. 5 when a CH-53K assigned to VMX-1 successfully recovered a Navy MH-60S Knighthawk helicopter from Mount Hogue in the White Mountains of California. Two test aircraft flew across the country from North Carolina to California in August to test its aerial refueling and self-deploying capabilities and then practice desert and mountain operations at Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms.

The Navy helicopter experienced a hard landing in the rugged mountain terrain — with no injuries to the crew — and was subsequently lifted after the Navy “exhausted all other resources” including Army National Guard Chinook helicopters and other Navy and Marine Corps units. 

The recently delivered King Stallion will join the four test aircraft and three production-representative aircraft at New River. There Marines are training to fly and support the fleet with heavy-lift missions in preparation for the CH-53K’s first deployment in 2024 using a suite of training devices developed by Sikorsky. Pilots receive hands-on training through the containerized flight training device (CTFD), which replicates the functionality, flight characteristics, mission profiles, and lift capabilities of the CH-53K. 

A ceremony marking the completion and delivery the Marine Corps was held Sept. 24 at the Connecticut plant where Sikorsky also builds the UH-60 Black Hawk. Lockheed Martin Photo

Maintenance personnel also prepare with a virtual aircraft environment through the helicopter emulation maintenance trainer, an immersive experience in which Marines practice avionics and airframe maintenance in preparation for working on fleet aircraft.

The helicopter is part of a 200-aircraft program of record for the Marine Corps with a total of 33 aircraft currently on contract and an additional nine on contract for long lead parts. Where the company is now tooled to deliver one aircraft every three months, plans are to deliver two per month or 24 per year at full-rate production. Sikorsky is evicting the Black Hawk line that currently runs parallel to 53K production in Stratford and will double capacity to accommodate full-rate production. 

A decision whether to enter full-rate production is due in fiscal year 2023, which begins Oct. 1, 2022. At full rate, the Stratford plant should be able to churn out 36 King Stallions per year. 

“The CH-53K helicopter provides advanced capabilities allowing Marines to get anywhere in the world where the mission requires heavy-lift logistics support,” said Lt. Gen. Mark Wise deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for aviation, during the ceremony at Sikorsky.  “This helicopter is a much safer aircraft because it can maneuver in low visibility environments. It will forward deploy Marines quickly and effectively.”

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