WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has given its new combat rescue helicopter the green light to go into production, its manufacturer Lockheed Martin Sikorsky said Tuesday.

After four test aircraft performed more than 150 hours of flight tests, the Air Force approved a “Milestone C” decision for Sikorsky’s HH-60W combat rescue helicopter, moving the program to low-rate initial production.

"We have just successfully gained approval to launch the production of a helicopter that will save the lives of our war fighters and our allies all over the world. This decision begins the transition to this more capable and reliable helicopter to fulfill the Air Force’s mission to leave no one behind,” said Col. Dale White, the Air Force’s program executive officer for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and special operations forces.

The HH-60W derivative of the Black Hawk boasts better defensive systems than the HH-60G Pave Hawk currently used for combat rescue missions. The “Whiskey” model also includes a new fuel system that nearly doubles the capacity of the internal tank, as well as improvements to hover performance, avionics and weapons, Sikorsky stated in a news release.

The Air Force plans to buy 113 HH-60W aircraft. Five helicopters are in production at Sikorsky’s facility in Stratford, Connecticut.

After a first flight in May, the four previously built test aircraft had undergone evaluations at the company’s flight center in West Palm Beach, Florida, which the Air Force used to assess the aircraft’s performance and load-carrying characteristics.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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