How Big and powerful is the US heavy helicopter CH-53K?

How Big and powerful is the US heavy helicopter CH-53K?

Heavy helicopters are essential equipment for major military powers. Russia has the famous Mi-26 “Halo,” while the United States has the CH-53 “Sea Stallion.” The Mi-26 did not usher in an “epic” upgrade after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, while the CH-53, which was born in the same period, ushered in a super variant of this type of machine family in 2015 – the CH-53K “Stallion King.”

Intuitive comparison of CH-53E and CH-53K body size

Introduced in 2015, the CH-53K “King Stallion” helicopter takes the term “bigger is better” to a whole new level. This mammoth aircraft is a complete circle larger than its predecessor, the CH-53E. Just imagine the awe-inspiring sight of this colossal machine taking to the skies.

When it comes to dimensions, the CH-53K surpasses its older sibling in every way. Its fuselage length, excluding propellers and aerial refueling probes, stretches an impressive 22.29 meters compared to the CH-53E’s 20.46 meters. Not only that but the width of its fuselage has also been expanded to a remarkable 5.33 meters, up from the CH-53E’s 4.57 meters. This beastly size makes the CH-53K truly stand out among its peers.

But it’s not just about size; the CH-53K also boasts an impressive take-off weight. With a maximum take-off weight of 39.92 tons, it is only surpassed by the Russian Mi-26 among active helicopters. This incredible weight capacity allows the CH-53K to handle heavy-duty missions with ease and power.

However, what makes the CH-53K even more intriguing is that despite its enhanced size and engine power, its external lifting capacity hasn’t seen a significant increase. According to official data from Sikorsky, both the CH-53E and the CH-53K have a maximum external lifting weight of 16.33 tons. It’s as if this colossal machine knows it doesn’t need to flaunt its internal strength to impress.

So, next time you catch a glimpse of the mighty CH-53K “King Stallion” soaring through the sky, take a moment to appreciate its awe-inspiring size, incredible power, and the intriguing balance it strikes between its massive frame and its modest external lifting capacity. It’s a true marvel of modern aviation engineering.

CH-53K lifted an F-35C prototype during the external load test

In mid-December 2022, the U.S. Navy conducted a test at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station to evaluate the CH-53K helicopter’s maximum external lifting capacity. During the test, a prototype of the carrier-based fighter, the F-35C, was hoisted and airlifted to its destination. To give you an idea, the empty weight of the F-35C is around 15.69 tons, but the actual weight of the prototype used in the test would be lower.

This test demonstrated the CH-53K’s lifting capabilities and provided a clear visual representation of its impressive size. Despite the F-35C being a decently sized carrier-based aircraft, it appeared quite small compared to the massive CH-53K, which measures about 30 meters long. It’s like witnessing the Mi-26 helicopter lifting the heavy fighter Su-27—an extraordinary sight showcasing the significant size difference between the two aircraft.

CH-53K recovered an MH-60S helicopter that had a hard landing in a mountainous area in September 2021

In fact, before successfully lifting the F-35C, the CH-53K has already proved its excellent lifting capacity in high-altitude mountainous areas. In September 2021, the CH-53K, which is still being tested, received a difficult task-recovering a hard-landed MH-60S helicopter in the Sierra Nevada mountains at an altitude of 3,657 meters. The MH-60S helicopter weighs about 6.9 tons, and the maximum external lifting weight of the CH-53K is more than twice that.

However, considering the local altitude of more than 3,600 meters, this task is actually no heavier than lifting a 15.69-ton helicopter near sea level. The F-35C with ease. With the strong power of three T408 turboshaft engines, the CH-53K finally successfully lifted the MH-60S from the mountain to Bishop Airport, 42 kilometers away.

CH-53K lifting a JLTV joint light tactical vehicle

Compared with the F-35C carrier-based fighter jet, the JLTV joint light tactical vehicle looks much smaller in size, but this military off-road vehicle with thick armor is not light in weight, and its curb weight weighs about 7 tons. It is about the same weight as the aforementioned MH-60S helicopter. 

According to the requirements of the U.S. Marine Corps, a very important item in the combat application of the CH-53K is to be able to lift the 7-ton JLTV joint light tactical vehicle to any mission area within a radius of 160 kilometers. From the test results It can be seen that the external lifting capacity of CH-53K can fully meet the needs of the fourth class.

The size comparison between JLTV (right) and Hummer military vehicle

Let’s go back to the topic of size. In order to cope with the increasingly fierce roadside IED in the security war, the JLTV joint light tactical vehicle has greatly enhanced its protection ability compared with its predecessor Humvee. Of course, the result is that its size has also increased Six meter which is a whole head bigger than Hummer, which is already considered a big off-road vehicle. Combined with the above two pictures, I believe everyone can have a more intuitive impression of the size of CH-53K, the “stallion king.”

CH-53K taxiing on the runway

The CH-53K helicopter is large and powerful but has some noticeable drawbacks. One major drawback is its cost. The U.S. Marine Corps originally planned to buy 200 CH-53Ks, with a budget of up to $25 billion. This translates to an average price of about $125 million per unit, which is more expensive than the F-35A stealth fighter used by the U.S. Air Force. Although the unit price has decreased over time, with the fourth batch in 2020 priced at $102.1 million, it was still higher than the F-35A.

In the fifth batch of purchases in 2021, the unit price dropped below $100 million, but it remained high at $97.6 million, still surpassing the price of the F-35A. Even the export-oriented CH-53K, like the one Israel planned to buy, was reported to have a purchase price as high as $167 million. Germany initially considered purchasing the CH-53K but opted for the cheaper CH-47F due to its high cost (€100 million per unit).

In addition to being expensive, the early tests of the CH-53K also exposed problems such as the engine’s easy intake of exhaust gas, the high failure rate of the reducer, design flaws in the tail rotor drive shaft, and so on. After 7 years of testing, the CH-53K finally formed its initial combat capability in 2022. In 2023, Sikorsky plans to produce 8 CH-53Ks. In 2024, the production capacity will be doubled to 16. Complete the production and delivery tasks of CH-53K for all customers in one year.

The purpose of the U.S. military in building heavy-duty transport aircraft is to serve as a key land-sea connector that can supply and transport combatants and technicians. It can enhance the responsiveness of the U.S. Marine Corps to move troops and equipment from ships to shore faster and more efficiently and to higher altitude terrain.

CH-53K is receiving aerial refueling, the tanker in front is KC-130J

The CH-53K is a large transport aircraft that possesses aerial refueling capability, enabling it to extend its combat range. When compared to the aerial refueling aircraft KC-130J, the size of the CH-53K becomes evident. In a photo showing the KC-130J refueling the F-35B stealth fighter, it is apparent that the CH-53K is significantly larger than the F-35B.

The CH-53K’s size is advantageous for tasks such as beach landings and it plays a vital role in air assault operations and coordinated air-to-ground missions. In the realm of helicopters, being large is highly valued within modern combat systems as it brings important capabilities to the table.