WASHINGTON — After sitting in the Arizona desert since 2004, a pair of MH-53 Sea Dragon heavy-lift helicopters were rescued by the Navy and Marine Corps in 2015 as candidates for refurbishment and re-entry into the fleet. But instead of going the typical depot route, the services chose an outside contractor to whip the aircraft back into flying shape.
The Marines, Navy and Naval Air Systems Command concluded that in order to meet emerging mission requirements, aircraft must be added to the fleet. But the helicopters have not been in production for some time.
A couple of the aircraft sitting at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, were selected for a Marine Corps squadron. The idea was to bring them back to a current Navy configuration and then use them for basic stick-and-rudder flight familiarization for a training squadron at Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina.
But who would be responsible for the work? While the traditional depots probably could have completed the job, they have a planned capacity each year, according to Lt. Col. Kristofor Stark, a service lead in PMA-261, the NAVAIR program office for H-53s.
“So to throw this on their lap ... you would have basically bogged down the depots," Stark said.
Leaders at PMA-261 recently toured the facilities of a 47-year-old company out in Portland, Oregon, that specializes in manufacturing, maintenance repair and overhaul of legacy aircraft. The company believed it a good fit for helicopters requiring overhaul.
“Erickson Inc. was already doing some work for us, as they were a subcontractor to Sikorsky” working on tail pylons for the CH-53E Super Stallion, according to Stark.
Additionally, because of the work the done operating the S-64 Aircrane — which is the civil version of the U.S. Army’s CH-54 Tarhe that formed the basis of the CH-53E — “we were interested in seeing the kind of capability they had, and that is really what led us toward doing some work,” Stark said.
“I saw their facilities and I saw the quality of work and caliber of what they are doing out there in that facility,” Stark said. “I was impressed with their capability, their organic capability and the product that they put out,” which he described as comparable to a “bird right off the production line.”
Stark added that a number of Erickson’s employees working on the helicopters are retired Marines and sailors that are used to turning wrenches on H-53s.
Waking up the supply chain to do the work hasn’t been too difficult, according to Stark. “The supply chain has been responsive,” but the real challenge is taking an aircraft that has been in the desert and getting it ready for show time.
“You basically have to dissect that entire aircraft,” he said. And depending on corrosion, the aircraft might require parts that the supply chain isn’t postured to immediately provide.
Taking on a couple of aircraft overhauls may seem like a minor effort, but through the activity the company has developed a holistic support package for the H-53 platform, which includes depot-, intermediate- and organizational-level maintenance as well as parts fabrication and manufacturing and engineering solutions.
Through the work, Erickson has “carried out thousands of discrepancy rectifications and has fabricated more than 450 parts, as well as designed and implemented 25 engineering repairs,” according to a company report on the effort.
Erickson is preparing, by the end of the month, to turn over the first of the two MH-53s, not to the Marine Corps, but to the Navy. The second aircraft will be delivered by the end of the year, according to Ryan Perkins, Erickson’s H-53 program manager. The aircraft began their overhaul at Erickson in November 2015.
Earlier this year, the Marine Corps and Navy decided the helicopters would be better suited with the Navy instead of with the Corps, according to Stark.
The CH-53 community “wasn’t all that interested in having an MH aircraft on its flight line” which would have complicated maintenance and operations by having another configuration to work with, Stark said.
“The MH community was very appreciative that we had kind of done some of the work to get these aircraft ready, and they are now very excited about receiving a couple more aircraft,” Stark said.
With the Navy taking on the two overhauled MH-53s, it will build the fleet from 27 to 29 aircraft that fill the Airborne Mine Counter Measures and Vertical Onboard Delivery missions.
MH-53s exclusively perform the Airborne Mine Counter Measures mission. These aircraft have a tow boom in the back attached to a line towing a 10,000-pound sled that runs through water and detonates mines to clear a safe path through which Navy vessels can sail.
The two aircraft will go to a helicopter mine countermeasures squadron based out of Norfolk, Virginia.
Since Erickson took on the work to overhaul the MH-53s for the Navy, as well as some work on a CH-53E, the company has also been selected to overhaul and reconfigure S-80M helicopters being retired by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force into MH-53E variants for the U.S. Navy.
The Japanese forces are giving the helicopters to the U.S. free of charge.
The Navy received the first two helicopters in June of 2017 and another two in June this year. The aircraft are going through the engineering and logistical processes to figure out how to transition and overhaul the helicopters that will include depot-level inspections and repairs, Stark said.
Erickson said the company now has the four aircraft on site at its facilities and is working to develop a scope of work and timeline for the reconfiguration. For Erickson, the hope is this is just the tip of iceberg and that the company is selected to take on more overhaul and reconfiguration work in the future, according to Perkins.
And as depots continue to work at max capacity, the prospect for future work seems promising.
For now the plan is for the CH-53K King Stallion heavy-lift helicopter, under development by Sikorsky, to replace the Echo-model aircraft, Stark said, adding that the services “have sufficient numbers right now” in terms of both the CH-53 and MH-53. The Marine Corps received its first CH-53K from Sikorsky in May this year.
As CH-53Ks come online and require work, Erickson is hoping to be selected to do similar work on the heavy-lift helicopters, which are just now entering service. The company also believes it is primed to take on work overhauling Bell UH-1 Venom and Viper helicopters in service now.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.