The MH-60S Knighthawk is the United States Navy's newest multi-mission helicopter. Originally designated as the CH-60S to signify its primary vertical replenishment role, the Knighthawk has since had its designation revised to MH-60S to reflect additional mission parameters consisting of special warfare and support, combat search & rescue and airborne mine countermeasures. The Knighthawk entered into USN service in February of 2002 with full scale production beginning in August of that year, replacing the durable but aging CH-46D Sea Knights heavy-lift, tandem-rotor helicopters then in service (Sea Knights were fully retired from service with the USN in September of 2004). While the CH-46D Sea Knight sported a similar external design to the US Army CH-47 Chinook utility series, the MH-60S similarly reflects the US Army's current UH-60 Blackhawk series. In fact, the UH-60 airframe is used in a handful of navalized forms that include the SH-60B "Seahawk", SH-60F "Oceanhawk", HH-60H "Rescue Hawk", MH-60R "Seahawk" and the MH-60S "Knighthawk". As of this writing, the US Navy plans on fielding a total of 237 Knighthawks in its inventory by 2011. It is also expected that the MH-60S Knighthawks and MH-60R Seahawks will replace all earlier Seahawk versions in service with the USN.
Incidentally, "Knighthawk" is an unofficial designation for the MH-60S.
The MH-60S was developed by Sikorsky beginning in 1997 and first flight by a production aircraft was achieved in January of 2000. Its origins lay in the UH-60L model of the Blackhawk series along with the proven systems of its navalized form - the SH-60B Seahawk . Essentially, the Knighthawk is a hybrid design of sorts, sporting the airframe, external pylons, cabin space and cargo-hauling capabilities of the Blackhawk while showcasing the engines, gearbox, folding rotor system and autopilot systems of the Seahawk. The Knighthawk fits an "all-glass", two-seat cockpit featuring four large programmable liquid crystal displays (known as the "MH-60 Common Cockpit") of the MH-60R series. Other digital components include an inertial navigation and a global positioning system.
Evaluation trials for the Knighthawk began in November of 2001 and continued up through May of 2002. Production MH-60S Knighthawks first graced the decks of the USS Essex, a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, and will continue to be a primary fixture on such vessels for decades to come. In addition to replacing the CH-46 in the vertical replenishment role, the MH-60S also replaces the HH-60H in the combat search and rescue role (retaining the rescue hoist of the Seahawk for this purpose).
Externally, the Knighthawk looks every bit the part of her Blackhawk origins, sporting large cabin doors (on both sides of the fuselage), doors for the pilot and co-pilot, high-mounted turboshaft engines, static undercarriage and slender fuselage shape. The cabin holds space for up to 20 passengers and features full heating and cooling capabilities for increased comfort.
Power for all Knighthawks is derived from twin General Electric T-700-GE-401C turboshaft engines driving a four-bladed main rotor and four-bladed tail rotor, all navalized for the rigors of operating at sea. The main rotor features powered folding for a smaller footprint aboard naval vessels. The Knighthawk is equipped with the Hover In-Flight Refueling system (HIFR).
Standard defensive armament is mission-specific and can include the pintle-mounting the 7.52x51mm M60D general purpose machine gun, the 7.62x51mm M240 general purpose machine gun or the GAU-17/A minigun on the port or starboard cabin windows. Cabin doors support the mounting of the 12.7mm Browning heavy caliber machine gun. With the "Armed Helicopter Mission Kit" by Lockheed Martin, the Knighthawk can field Hellfire anti-tank or Penguin anti-ship missiles, the MK54 digital torpedo, cannon pods or gunpods as needed. Other offensive systems that have since been added include a laser range finder, full-color TV camera and FLIR (Forward-Looking InfraRed). For electronic defense, the MH-60S sports countermeasures made up of the AN/APR-39AV(2) and AN/AAR-47V(2) series radar warners along with the AN/ALQ-144V(6) Infrared Countermeasures Set (ICS).
Survival systems include jettisonable cockpit doors for the pilot and co-pilot, seated side-by-side at the front of the fuselage offering excellent views forward, to the sides, above and below. Each pilot is afforded an armored chair to protect from ground fire. A third crewmember manages the cabin and defensive weapons as needed. A ground proximity warning system was been added to help avoid accidents.
Since the Knighthawk system has been branched out to include a variety of fleet-important roles, none might be more distinctive than the inclusion of the Knighthawk in support of the mine countermeasures role. For this job, the Knighthawk has been supplied with a Raytheon AN/AQS-20A towed sonar, the AN/AES-1 ALMDS airborne laser detection system (in pod form) and various other mission-sensitive anti-mine detectors and neutralizers.
MH-60S Knighthawks were deployed operationally in 2003 for Operation Iraqi Freedom. In June of 2007, Thailand became the first export customer for the Knighthawk, putting an order in for two MH-60S platforms for use as utility maritime systems in their Royal Navy.