Military Embedded Systems

All 147 Marine Corps CH-53E helicopters to get tech reset


August 26, 2016

John McHale

Editorial Director

Military Embedded Systems

PATUXENT RIVER, Maryland. U.S. Marine Corps officials announced that a a full reset of the Corps' CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift helicopters has begun and is aiming to significantly increasing the number of operationally fit aircraft.

The reset will also tackle some systemic issues that have driven the platform’s readiness level to unsustainable depths in recent years, according to a Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) release.

These issue first came to light after the crash of an MH-53E Sea Dragon -- the Navy’s version of the aircraft -- off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, during a training exercise in January 2014. Three of the five Sailors onboard were killed and a subsequent investigation determined that electrical wires inside the aircraft had chafed against and breached a fuel line, sparking a fire that flooded the cabin and cockpit with thick smoke, according to the NAVAIR release. The crash initiated an inspection of all CH/MH-53s for signs of chaffing between cabin fuel tubes and electrical wiring.

“What was discovered was that the material condition of the aircraft, both the CH-53E and the MH-53E, was degraded,” says Col. Hank Vanderborght, program manager for the H-53 Heavy Lift Helicopters Program Office (PMA-261) at Naval Air Systems Command. “Those helicopters have been around since the early 80s, so 30-plus years, and we’d been at war [on terrorism] for the last 15 years, so the machines had been used pretty hard.”

When Lt. Gen. Jon Davis took over as the USMC’s deputy commandant for aviation in June 2014, among his first acts was an order to have independent readiness reviews for each of the Corps’ aviation platforms. The CH-53E was the second platform examined, after the AV-8B Harrier.

The CH-53E’s report, titled "the Super Stallion Independent Readiness Review (SSIRR)," listed low-readiness related findings such as material condition of the aircraft, supply system agility, as well as issues with maintenance publications, support equipment, and training, says Vanderborght. In response the Marine Corps created a two-step strategy to improve readiness with the first being a complete reset of all 147 aircraft, which is expected to take three years, he continues. “We’re going to put every airframe through an on-average 110-day process of stripping the aircraft down completely, rebuilding it and changing out any high-time components,” Vanderborght adds.

The reset validation aircraft was completed in April at Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina, and flew back to the West Coast in June. The next five CH-53Es have started the process — three at New River and two at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California. Vanderborght says the plan is to have 16 aircraft being reset at any given time—seven at both New River and Miramar, and two at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.

After not flying for four years, the first validation CH-53E took only 12 days of functional check flights to be confirmed operational, a significant time reduction from the three to four months of check flights that are usually necessary for Super Stallions that spend that much time grounded, Vanderborght says.

Maintenance crews had already replaced fuel lines and redone the wire bundles in most of the Super Stallions as a direct response to the January 2014 crash, upping the current percentage of ready CH-53Es to about 30 percent, an increase from last year when only about 20 percent of the aircraft were ready to fly, Vanderborght says.

The second step involves addressing the remaining “systemic” issues, a preventative move to make sure another reset is not needed in the future.

Vanderborght says in the release that one aspect that will require particular focus is the training of CH-53E maintainers, most of whom have spent their entire careers in the Marine Corps during a period when the focus has been on quickly turning out aircraft rather than taking the time to learn the systems they’re working on.

“We’ve been at war [on terrorism] since 2001, so many of today’s senior maintainers in the Marine Corps joined when our modus operandi has been to make mission at all times. They’ve been taught to maintain airplanes by fixing what’s broken and get it back to the mission,” Vanderborght notes. “Before 2001, maintainers would troubleshoot the system and take a long time to understand it, so there was a lot of knowledge developed by on-the-job-training. We’ve kind of lost all that knowledge. I would say the Marines today—not to their fault—are not as knowledgeable about the aircraft as they were prior to the war."