The first five Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters have entered an equipment reset process, kicking off a three-year effort to strip down and rebuild all 147 Super Stallions in the fleet, officials with U.S. Naval Air Systems Command said.
The Marines' aging Super Stallions made by Sikorsky, now part of Lockheed Martin Corp., have been in service since the 1980s and saw heavy wear in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a speech this week in Washington, D.C., Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said he regretted that the service hadn't brought the aircraft home from theater to reset them in maintenance depots as Marine units redeployed from combat zones, calling the decision not to do so a mistake.
"Looking at that now, I would recommend that my successors never do that," he said. "The money was there to fly those airplanes back, and we should have done it."
Marine Corps and Navy H-53 aircraft have been under increased scrutiny since a January 2014 crash of a Navy MH-53E Sea Dragon off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, that resulted in the deaths of three sailors who were aboard.
The crash was determined to have been caused by electrical wires that had chafed against a fuel line and damaged it, resulting in a fire that choked the aircraft with dense smoke, according to a NAVAIR statement. All H-53 aircraft were subsequently inspected for similar equipment problems.
"What was discovered was that the material condition of the aircraft, both the CH-53E and the MH-53E, was degraded," Col. Hank Vanderborght, program manager for NAVAIR's H-53 Heavy Lift Helicopters Program Office, said in a statement Wednesday. "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."
In January, the Marine Corps was shocked by another tragic incident in which a pair of Super Stallions collided with each other off the coast of Oahu during night training, resulting in the deaths of all 12 Marines aboard the two aircraft. The investigation into that crash recently concluded, officials said, but the results have not yet been publicly released or discussed.
NAVAIR officials said each Super Stallion will spend approximately 110 days in a reset process that will involve stripping the aircraft down and rebuilding it while replacing any aging components.
Of the first five aircraft to enter the reset process (following the reset of an initial validation aircraft), three are from Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina, and two are from MCAS Miramar, California, officials said.
Ultimately, Vanderborght said in the NAVAIR release, the Marine Corps will have sixteen Super Stallions in reset at a time, seven each from Miramar and New River, and two from MCAS Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.
NAVAIR officials said Super Stallion readiness rates currently hover around 30 percent, up from about 20 percent last year. Across the Defense Department, aviation readiness targets are much higher -- around 75 percent on average.
This three-year reset process will conclude as the Super Stallion's replacement -- the CH-53K King Stallion -- begins entering service, starting in 2019. However, the Marine Corps does not plan to phase the Super Stallion out completely until around 2032.