No one who has flown in a Marine Corps CH-53 can ever forget the experience: It's like riding in some kind of steam-powered, cast-iron 1890s earthquake simulator designed by Jules Verne that was sent forward in time and somehow, incredibly, given the ability to fly.
You can feel the basso profundo dragonfly beat deep in your chest. The heat -- Marines always seem to end up in the least hospitable places in the globe -- makes you yearn to go relax in a sweatbox. Mysterious fluid dripping from the overhead plonks off your helmet, or stains the knees of your pants, and you sit there hoping the helicopter can please just retain enough of its hydraulic lifeblood to finish the hop and make one last landing. Then, at last, somebody can put this thing out of its misery.
So naturally, when you get where you're going and walk down the ramp off the aircraft, you can't wait to go again.
To be sure, Marines plan to operate 53s for the duration, but the oldest copies of the aircraft -- still in service, of course -- are starting to go away, according to an official story Wednesday. As you might imagine after four decades, this helicopter has taken on a legendary status:
Many of the CH-53D Sea Stallions flying Afghanistan today also flew in Vietnam, said Master Sgt. Jason Vernam. Vernam, from Stafford, Va., said he has 15 years experience in the CH-53D Sea Stallion community and is currently serving as an advisor for 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward)’s maintenance operations.Despite the apparently unshakable touch of controversy that still clings to the Osprey, the Marines love it. Manufacturers Bell and Boeing know this, which is why they pitched DoD a second multi-year deal for 122 more aircraft in August. (That would mean deliveries until 2019.)
“There is nothing that out flies it,” said Gunnery Sgt. Travis Riddick, the squadron’s quality assurance chief, and a CH-53D Sea Stallion crew chief. “For everything the Marine Corps has put into this helicopter, we have gotten ten times out of it.”
The Sea Stallion serves as a rotary-wing workhorse for 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward). The Wing is the aviation combat element for the southwestern regional command of the NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
“As a conventional helicopter, its mission is well suited for this environment,” said Revor. “The short leg flights to lots of [forward operating bases] carrying a fair amount of cargo is no problem with the engines on this thing. It is still a 40-year-old airframe though, and I have had a lot of good memories flying it,” said Revor. “But, it is about time for me to move on to a more modern aircraft.”
The Marine Corps is phasing out the aging CH-53D platform. Some Sea Stallion squadrons will begin flying the newer, more powerful CH-53E Super Stallion, while others will transfer to the MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft.
And as the story said, there'll still be 53s around the Marine Corps, just fewer and comparatively newer versions. The service will roll over to all E models and it still hopes to add a new variant, the CH-53K, in the coming years. Manufacturer Sikorsky wants the K to make its first flight in 2014, and here's how it described the helo's features:
Features of the CH-53K helicopter include: a modern glass cockpit; fly-by-wire flight controls; fourth generation rotor blades with anhedral tips; a low-maintenance elastomeric rotor head; upgraded engines; a locking cargo rail system; external cargo handling improvements; survivability enhancements; and improved reliability, maintainability and supportability.Just imagine flying in a clean, brand-new CH-53 -- that would be weird.