Marines’ CH-53K King Stallion Lifts Stricken MH-60 Seahawk In Its First Real-World Mission
The CH-53K’s retrieval of an MH-60S Seahawk from a mountain valley is a big step for Pentagon’s most powerful helicopter.
The U.S. Marine Corps CH-53K King Stallion heavy-lift helicopter has recorded its first official fleet mission, completing the real-world retrieval of another helicopter from a mountain ridge, and marking a significant step forward for the program. While the rotorcraft, which has faced its fair share of problems in the past, is still undergoing operational assessment, the CH-53K recently undertook the mission over the course of September 4-5, although full details, and the photos seen in this feature, were released yesterday.
The King Stallion was assigned the recovery of a U.S. Navy MH-60S Seahawk helicopter that made a hard landing on a high-altitude ridge amid rugged terrain on Mount Hogue, near Bishop, California, close to the Nevada border. The Seahawk, assigned to the Naval Air Station Fallon Base Flight, at the Nevada base, had come down during a search-and-rescue operation for a lost hiker on July 16. No injuries were reported to its four crew, who were rescued the following day. As for the hiker, they were found by authorities four days after being posted missing.
"VMX-1 [Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1] received a request for assistance from the Naval Safety Center about an MH-60S that suffered a hard landing near Mount Hogue, California, at an elevation of 12,000 feet Mean Sea Level (MSL) in July," said Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Luke Frank, the CH-53K Detachment Officer in Charge for VMX-1.
After assessing recovery options provided by the Army National Guard, Navy, and Marine Corps fleet squadrons, the MH-60S unit and the Naval Safety Center turned to the King Stallion. "They all lacked the capability to lift the aircraft without an extensive disassembly," Frank explained.
"After two weeks of exhaustive planning and assembling a team of more than 25 Marines and sailors from VMX-1 and 1st Landing Support Battalion from Camp Pendleton, California, we deployed two CH-53Ks to Bishop, California, and got to work," Frank continued.
The roughly 15,200-pound MH-60S was then partially disassembled and prepared for transport back to Bishop as an underslung load, a fundamental airlift capability that the CH-53K will provide the Marine Corps once it's in full operational service. The King Stallion's CH-53E Super Stallion predecessor is also able to lift an H-60 series rotorcraft as a slung load, but the CH-53K offers significant advantages when carrying heavy loads at higher altitudes and in hotter environments.
"After six months of flight operations with the CH-53K, the detachment had every confidence in the aircraft's abilities to conduct the mission safely. Our main concern was the environmental factors ground support personnel would have to endure," said Frank. "This is exactly what the K is made to do," Frank said.
"Heavy lift is a unique and invaluable mission for the Marine Corps. Horsepower is our weapon system and the CH-53K is armed to the teeth. The entire team of Marines at VMX-1, 1st Landing Support Battalion, and NAS Fallon Search and Rescue were extremely motivated to execute this mission and we are all very proud to have completed this one flawlessly. To be the first group of professionals to complete a real-world, heavy lift/high altitude mission in support of a unit who thought all options were off the table is extremely rewarding."
VMX-1 is currently involved in proving out the type for frontline service at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California.
That process has so far run into some difficulties. Some of these were detailed in the most recent annual Director Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) report. In March, the U.S. Navy — responsible for managing the CH-53K program on behalf of the Marine Corps — confirmed to The War Zone that the helicopter was prohibited from flying in dust clouds or so-called brownout conditions, with particular concerns about engine performance in these circumstances. You can read our full account of that issue and its implications in this previous article.
The problem of engine performance degradation in brownout conditions has particular relevance to the type of external cargo operations that were demonstrated recently with the Seahawk recovery. With a limit of 70 seconds of exposure to brownout during a given maneuver, "CH-53K aircrew cannot realistically perform external cargo delivery operations," the DOT&E report noted.
Not only is the movement of underslung loads critical to the CH-53K's ability to fly its core missions, but the helicopter will be expected to fly routinely in brownout conditions of the type that have characterized rotary operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
As for its prodigious slung-load capability, the CH-53K is outfitted with a new external cargo system with three independent hooks for optional single-, dual- or triple-load operations. Unlike the CH-53E, therefore, the King Stallion will, ultimately, be able to deliver three different loads to three different locations in the course of a single sortie.
"Planners and decision-makers will embrace a new era of capability that allows the quick massing of combat power, agile maneuver, resilient logistics, and predictive maintenance, all under the unifying theme of multi-domain attack," the latest Marine Aviation Plan, released in 2019, explains.
Whether the issues with moving slung loads in brownout conditions has now been addressed, or whether the Mount Hogue recovery did not entail flying in these conditions, is not immediately clear, but The War Zone has reached out to NAVAIR for further comment.
Back in March, the Navy confirmed that "The CH-53K will continue engineering investigation, ground testing and flight test in sand and dust in order to safely expand the operational envelope."
However, the engine problem in brownout conditions is only one of the issues that have beset the CH-53K program.
Although a first CH-53K was delivered to the Marines in May 2018, it soon became clear that the expected date for the service to reach initial operational capability (IOC) with the type would be delayed. This was the result of problems including ingestion of exhaust gasses into the engines, deficiencies with the main drive shaft and tail rotor assemblies, and main rotor gearboxes that were prone to failure.
The engine and gearbox issues were resolved in fairly short order, but IOC is still not expected until Fiscal Year 2024, according to the 2019 Marine Aviation Plan, although that could move forward depending on the progress made with the ongoing initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) with VMX-1. At one point, the Marine Corps expected the CH-53K to achieve IOC in 2015, before that was pushed back until 2019, in part due to the aforementioned gearbox issues.
At the same time, the costs involved in the CH-53K have continued to rise alarmingly, with the Pentagon 2021 Fiscal Year budget request outlining a unit cost of around $125 million. The Marine Corps plans to buy at least 200 examples of the King Stallion but, although the service still has a formal requirement to ultimately acquire 220 of these helicopters, it has also considered reducing the overall total, on cost grounds.
In the meantime, the Marines and Navy are progressively gaining more experience with the King Stallion in representative operating environments. In June last year, an example went aboard the USS Wasp (LHD-1), for the first at-sea trials on one of the Navy's big-deck amphibious assault ships.
The CH-53K has also won a long-sought first export order, Israel choosing to replace its aging fleet of legacy S-65/CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters with the decision to buy the new rotorcraft approved by the Israeli Ministry of Defense in February this year. The King Stallion won out against the Boeing CH-47 Chinook and Washington has approved the sale of 18 examples.
That the Navy and Marine Corps now consider the CH-53K ready for a real-world mission, albeit one in their backyard, is significant, especially bearing in mind the setbacks that have dogged the program so far, and led to some lengthy delays. The King Stallion may still be some way away from IOC, let alone full operational capability, but tasks such as the retrieval of the MH-60S from Mount Hogue will only help build confidence in a program that, for the Marine Corps and the U.S. armed forces at large, represents a vital vertical-lift asset.
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