A hugely powerful helicopter whose mechanical issues had delayed it from becoming operational finally deployed to its first Marine training exercise in August in the mountains of Idaho.
The CH-53K King Stallion helicopters can externally carry up to 27,000 pounds for 110 nautical miles, making them three times as powerful as their predecessor, the CH-53E Super Stallion.
In practice, that means the King Stallion can transport light armored vehicles long distances from ships to positions inland. The ability to carry heavy loads across long stretches of sea may prove an asset as the threat of China looms and the U.S. military turns its attention toward the islands of the Pacific.
“Routinely training with an LAV for an external load, to me, is absolute[ly] mind-boggling,” Staff Sgt. Dakota Schneider, a crew chief instructor with Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1, said in a Marine Corps news release Thursday. “It’s got power for days; you can do anything you want.”
The Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 461 conducted the exercise at Mountain Home Air Force Base in southwestern Idaho — far from the unit’s home in New River, North Carolina — to get experience in varied terrain. The squadron’s deployment to Idaho lasted from Aug. 2 to Aug. 24.
HMH-461, as the squadron’s name is abbreviated, deployed three King Stallions for the exercise, said Capt. Greg H. Kosiras, a spokesman for the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.
“The purpose of the exercise was to increase expeditionary capabilities, increase maintenance and aircrew proficiency, promote unit cohesion, and support the CH-53K fleet transition,” Kosiras said in the emailed statement.
It has been a long road toward getting the King Stallion operational.
The Corps originally ordered it in 2008. The first helicopter was delivered to the Marine Corps in May 2018, with the goal of having it in the fleet by the end of 2019.
But by February 2019, testing had brought to light more than 100 mechanical issues. One major concern was that engines sucked back in their own dirty exhaust, leading to engine overheating and system stalling, among other problems.
In September 2020, Sikorsky — the Lockheed Martin subsidiary that makes both the King Stallion and its predecessor — said it had resolved nearly all of its mechanical issues.
The helicopter was ready for its first official fleet mission in September 2021, when Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron One used it to recover a Navy helicopter stuck in the White Mountains of California.
The King Stallion had to take on the mission because the Navy, National Guard and other Marine squadrons couldn’t lift the 15,200-pound Navy aircraft using other helicopters.
After extensive testing and training, the Corps finally declared the King Stallion operational in April.
“The benefits are endless,” Staff Sgt. James Ganieany, airframes division chief for HMH-461, said in the Marine Corps press release. “We practice our external [lifts] with a Light Armored Vehicle, and we never have power issues. HMH-461 had its first operational flight for the CH-53K in April 2022, and have been training with it ever since.”
HMH-461 is a subsidiary of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, the aviation combat element of II Marine Expeditionary Force.
The squadron bears the nickname “Ironhorse” — a fitting title for the Marines who train with the King Stallion.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.