Sikorsky given go-ahead to build new U.S. Air Force rescue helicopter

Having racked up more than 100 hours of test flight time in the last three months, Sikorsky on Sept. 24 was given the green light to begin production of the U.S. Air Force’s new HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter.

The milestone C decision by the U.S. Air Force indicates the HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter program is sufficiently mature to enter low-rate initial production. Lockheed Martin Photo
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The so-called milestone C decision by the Air Force indicates the program to replace aging HH-60G Pave Hawks is sufficiently mature to enter low-rate initial production (LRIP). A Sept. 24 decision squeaked the production go-ahead into fiscal year 2019, taking advantage of funding that could have expired when the new year begins Oct. 1.

Sikorsky, a division of Lockheed Martin, has four test aircraft flying at its Development Flight Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. Together, they have flown more than 150 hours to expand the aircraft flight envelope and provide data for the milestone C decision. In June, with three test aircraft flying, Sikorsky had just 30 hours of flight test under its belt, but had plans to boost the test schedule to achieve the necessary 50 hours of flight test to allow for a production decision before the end of the current fiscal year.

“This affirmative milestone C decision validates the modifications to Sikorsky’s most successful Black Hawk helicopter, making it capable of saving downed airmen anytime, anywhere around the world,” said Greg Hames, Sikorsky program director. “This establishes the Combat Rescue Helicopter as a production program.”

Hames was brought in to right the ship after a blistering 2018 Defense Department program evaluation found several design deficiencies and schedule overruns. A veteran troubleshooter of the CH-53K King Stallion development, Hames was able to cut five months from the program and realign it with the Air Force’s desired schedule.

The Pentagon’s Director of Test and Evaluation report for 2018 weapon testing dinged the program for several deficiencies relating to aircraft survivability targets.

An affirmative milestone C decision allows Sikorsky to begin production of the aircraft, which is based on the venerable Black Hawk helicopter. The Air Force now is expected to award $564 million in contracts for 10 aircraft in LRIP lot one, and 12 aircraft in lot two. Both contracts have already been negotiated, Sikorsky said.

The company has five aircraft in various stages of production in Stratford, Connecticut, where its “employees and our nationwide supply chain are ready to begin production and support delivering this all new aircraft,” Sikorsky said in a statement.

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The Air Force program of record calls for 113 helicopters to replace its predecessor, the HH-60G — a fleet that aged quickly flying combat rescue missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 18 years.

“We have just successfully gained approval to launch the production of a helicopter that will save the lives of our warfighters and our allies all over the world,” said Air Force Col Dale R. White, program executive officer for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and Special Operations Forces. “This decision begins the transition to this more capable and reliable helicopter to fulfill the Air Force’s mission to leave no one behind. I could not be more proud of our government-contractor team for making this happen.”

The Combat Rescue Helicopter boasts a number of capability and reliability improvements over the legacy HH-60G. The modern W-model sports an all-glass integrated digital avionics systems and a 600-gallon internal fuel tank, double what the G-model carried internally. The Combat Rescue Helicopter has a range of 450 nautical miles with a maximum interior gross weight of 22,500 pounds.

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