The Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion is a heavy-lift helicopter system developed for the United States Marine Corps and utilized by handful of militaries today. She has proven a most versatile mount when it comes to hauling heavy equipment (including artillery batteries), troop concentrations, battling wild fires and evacuating wounded personnel. The CH-53 saw notable action with United States military forces all throughout the Vietnam War as well as operations with the Israeli and German armies since. Despite her 1960s origin, the CH-53 remains one of the most proven, competent heavy-lift systems anywhere in the world and should remain in operational service for some time to come, particularly with defense cuts looming for most national armies in regular need of such a helicopter.
The Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion was born of a United States Marine Corps requirement for a heavy-lift transport platform to replace their aging fleet of Sikorsky CH-37C Mojave models. Those then-current USMC helicopters utilized piston-powered engine systems as opposed to the more modern turboshaft implements still used today and were generally underpowered for the growing requirements of the battlefield. The USMC became involved with her other sister US military branches in a tilt-wing rotor concept program being presented by Vought-Hiller-Ryan. However, as most of these "universal solution" approaches go, development became a bloated, pricey and lengthy affair which forced the USMC to seek other avenues that resulted in their formal withdrawal from the project. Needless to say, the Vought-Hiller-Ryan XC-142A never saw the light of day for any one branch of US service and was lost to aviation history.
In March of 1962, the Bureau of Naval Weapons - operating under the banner of the United States Navy - put forth a requirement for a heavy-lift helicopter to serve their USMC brethren. The program fell under the designation of "Heavy Helicopter Experimental" ("HH/X") and required a multi-role helicopter platform capable of a 120 mile range, top speed of 170 miles per hour and the ability to lift up to 8,000lbs of cargo, passengers or medical litters. Several firms jumped into the requirement, eager for contract dollars. Those participating included Boeing Vertol, Kaman and Sikorsky. Boeing, already having sold their Chinook tandem-rotor helicopters to the US Army, maintained something of an early advantage and submitted a slightly modified form of their original CH-47. Kaman presented a version of the complicated Rotodyne concept, originally a British Fairey Aviation product that began development in 1957 with a single prototype built. Sikorsky, having garnered valuable experience for years concerning helicopter flight, took its large utility CH-54 "Tarhe" / S-64 "Skycrane" heavy-lift platform as a starting point. Sikorsky engineers developed a new airframe with the same rugged qualities and flexible systems of the CH-54/S-64 and presented it with an all-new fuselage incorporating a rear loading ramp for easy entry/exit as well as a water-tight hull to facilitate water emergency landings when necessary. The design came under the in-house model designation of "S-64".
Kaman soon dropped out of the hunt when the British government lost interest in the costly Fairey design, thus the Rotodyne concept was formally cancelled in and of itself in 1962. Though the submission from Boeing Vertol was a strong one, the Sikorsky proposal somehow won out with the formal defense contract awarded in July of 1962. A pair of prototypes (designated as YCH-53A) were ordered in August of that year though first flight would not occur until October 14th, 1964 due to program delays along multiple fronts - mechanical and political in nature. These prototypes were fitted with 2 x T64-GE-3 series turboshaft engines of 2,860 shaft horsepower each. Some sixteen CH-53 "Sea Stallion" helicopters were already on order for the USMC even when flight testing was still ongoing. With issues finally ironed out, the helicopter was ready for serial production and first deliveries began in 1966 with the CH-53A model - just in time to take part in Marine actions during the American involvement in the Vietnam War.
Outwardly, the CH-53 maintained a conventional layout as helicopters go. The cockpit flightdeck was held well-forward in the design and covered over in a heavily glazed window assembly allowing for proper viewpoints outside of the aircraft. Two pilots maintained their positions on the flight deck with access via automobile style doors to the fuselage sides. Direct aft of the cockpit were a pair of weapons stations that could field heavy machine guns for self-defense work. Each gunner was afforded an open-air square port to which conduct the business at hand. The fuselage of the CH-53 was longer than it was wide but her appearance was imposing nonetheless. The fuselage was slab-sided in nature and tapered upwards into the empennage at the rear. Side sponsons widened the breadth of the CH-53 and external fuel tanks could be further mounted outboard of these for increased range. Engines were high-mounted along the upper fuselage sides, ahead of amidships. The large-diameter six-bladed main rotor mast was held close to the fuselage and sat atop an engine compartment fixture protruding from the fuselage roof. The empennage was long and supported by the rear portion of the cargo bay which itself ran from the gunners area to the loading ramp. The powered ramp lowered and was supported by two struts along either side. A gun emplacement could be affixed to the extreme edge of the ramp as needed. The "up kicked" nature of the ramp hold area allowed for rear clearance during take-off. The empennage became a support stem needed to drive the four-bladed tail rotor mounted to portside. The tail rotor sat atop a thin vertical tail fin. Square vision ports could be seen across the fuselage sides for use by the occupants within. The cargo hold was suitable for seating combat-ready troops (seated in two rows, face-to-face) or cargo pieces. A centralized support system under the fuselage body could be used to haul heavier, larger loads. The undercarriage was fixed in place during flight, made up of a pair of two-wheeled main legs and a two-wheeled nose leg. In later models, a fixed in-flight refueling probe was noted to the front, starboard side of the aircraft.
CH-53s were arriving on the battle front as soon as January of 1967. They were quick to receive their formal "baptism of fire" in the hot jungle climate where the enemy was seemingly everywhere and backed by support of the Soviet Union. Once in action, the CH-53 proved relatively reliable and robust, capable of saving downed airmen as her original specifications required and hauling large loads of cargo and troops in and out of hot zones and relocating wounded personnel as needed. In all, 139 CH-53A models would be completed.
The United States Air Force (USAF) took note of the exceptionally large transport helicopter and ordered their first eight examples (as the HH-53B) in 1966 and dubbed their mounts "Super Jolly Green Giant". These were combat rescue variants specifically modified for the rigors and actions of searching for, and recovering, downed airmen. First flight of these altered CH-53s came on March 15th, 1967. The HH-53C came next in some 44 further examples though these were differentiated by the addition of an in-flight refueling probe as well as external fuel tank fittings for improved operational ranges (friendly pilots would most likely be downed far into enemy territory). USAF HH-53s (HH-53H) were later modified with terrain following radar systems, nose-mounted FLIR, GPS and INS navigation and Doppler for low-level night sorties under the "Pave Low III" initiative (producing the MH-53 "Pave Low" model). USAF Stallions operated into the final years of the Vietnam War and beyond - though most were upgraded to the MH-53 Pave Low standard. In 1986, a further 39 airframes were modified to the Pave Low III standard and also included in-flight refueling probes as well as an extensive suite of jammers with chaff/flare dispensers and armor plating. A searchlight was added for improved Search & Rescue functions as was a powered hoist. A modernization program later helped to extend the service life of these powerful systems.
The CH-53A was later upgraded to become the CH-53D fitting improved engines and gearbox, automatic blade folding for ease of storage aboard transport vessels and aircraft and an enlarged crew cabin. The upgraded engines were something of a necessity dictated by the Vietnam environment where more power at low operating levels became a requirement. The CH-53D took to the air for the first time on January 27th, 1969 and 126 examples would be produced in all. Once accepted into service, these D-models would be fielded alongside their existing A-model sisters for the duration of the Vietnam War.
The United States Navy also jumped into the CH-53 craze and received at least fifteen CH-53A models directly from the USMC in 1971 for use as airborne minesweepers. These were designated as "RH-53A" in the USN inventory and included more powerful T64-GE-413 series turboshaft engines of 3,925 shaft horsepower each, applicable mine-sweeping equipment and 2 x 12.7mm Browning heavy machine guns for the purpose of exploding mines in the water. The US Navy later took delivery of thirty CH-53D models as the "RH-53D" when they became available and, once again, used these for minesweeping duties. With the arrival of the CH-53D, the USN returned their RH-53As back to the USMC to which then these were reverted back to their original USMC CH-53A standard. As an aside, Iran received at least six minesweeper types from the US prior to the Islamic Revolution and maybe just two are in operational service today. The USN eventually replaced their RH-53D models with the more modern MH-53E "Sea Dragon" (based on the CH-53E "Super Stallion"). The CH-53E "Super Stallion" was an even more powerful version of the original Sea Stallion product. It incorporated another, third, engine installment that supplies even more hauling power.
Some previous USMC CH-53As were delivered to the USAF for pilot and crew training under the new designation of "TH-53A". These were extremely base-level helicopter airframes removed of their USMC equipment and painted over in the USAF camouflage scheme of the time. The "VH-53F" was also a CH-53 development for use as a VIP transport.
Austria became one of the first notable interested parties concerning CH-53A to which two were ordered for evaluation in 1968 with deliveries occurring sometime in 1970. However, operating costs of the type proved too expensive for the small country and these examples were subsequently sold off to Israel sometime in 1980.
Israeli contracted for CH-53s after becoming convinced of the helicopter's potential in regards to Israeli war doctrine as refined through the Six Day War. Israel operated a total of 45 CH-53 "Yas'ur" examples and later upgraded them through an indigenous modernization programs (to become the "CH-53 Yas'ur 2000"). The first CH-53 squadron was formed in August of 1970 and have proven their worth for the Israeli Army needs. To date, it is believed that at least 30 CH-53s are still in active service with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and they have even been pressed into service to combat wildfires as well as inserting/extracting elite special forces operatives behind enemy lines along with their more conventional battlefield hauling role. Unfortunately, it is Israeli CH-53s that have seen some of the deadliest accidents involving this helicopter type as, due to their inherently large passenger-carrying capabilities, numbers of dead have been rather high. Accidents involving CH-53s in Israeli service occurred in May 1977 (54 dead), February 1997 (73 dead, two CH-53s colliding) and July 2010 (7 dead in joint military exercises over Romania).
Germany not only received the CH-53 via export but also undertook license production of the system as to the tune of 112 total examples. The base American model (the CH-53D) was designated as the "CH-53G" in the German inventory with production handled by VFW-Fokker. 22 examples, including two pre-production models were assembled in-country while a further 90 examples were wholly locally produced. A modernization program will now see these fitted with T64-100 series turboshaft engines as funding allows. At least 80 German CH-53D models are known to be in operational service as of this writing and have seen extensive actions in Kosovo with the United Nations coalition and, more recently, Afghanistan.
Some twenty German CH-53Gs were upgraded in the late 1990s to become the CH-53GS fitting external fuel tanks, improved navigation and communication systems as well as the addition of a missile countermeasures suite. These were also given the uprated T64-100 series turboshaft engines and fielded with provisions to support German MG3 and M3M series general purpose machine guns.
German CH-53GE models (formally as the CH-53GSX) are relatively recent upgraded CH-53GS models numbering 26 examples for use in the desert environment of Afghanistan. These platforms have been given improved Search & Rescue (SAR)) functionality.
The German CH-53GA designation represents about forty CH-53G models from another modernization initiative. These have seen revised and improved navigation and communications suites, advanced auto pilot functions, new flight control systems and a redesigned flight deck. Additionally, FLIR is being added as is more internal fuel storage to complement the inherent stores as well as the external fuel load. First flight of this model occurred in February of 2010 with the program expected to wrap up in its entirety sometime in 2013.
Amazingly, it is expected that the CH-53 line - owing to its strong natural capabilities - will remain in service for some of these fighting forces up until 2030 - a strong testament to the successful nature of this quality rotary-wing system.
October 2018 - Israel has released a formal Request-forInformation (RFI) in seeking a successor for its aging fleet of CH-53 helicopters.
December 2018 - Israel is still seeking a formal replacement for its 16-strong fleet of CH-53 helicopters. Contenders now include the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey, the Boeing CH-47F, and the Sikorsky CH-53K (all detailed elsewhere on this site).
February 2019 - The German government has issued a formal request for up to sixty medium-/heavy-lift helicopters under its STH program. The program seeks to replace an aging fleet of Sikorsky CH-53G helicopters currently in service. Front-runners include the Boeing CH-47F Chinook tandem-rotor transport and Sikorsky's own CH-53K "King Stallion".
January 2020 - The Israeli Air Force has resumed operations of its CH-53 fleet following a six-week grounding period due to a non-fatal crash incident occurring in November of 2019.
Austria; Germany; Mexico; Iran; Israel; United States
(OPERATORS list includes past, present, and future operators when applicable)
✓Maritime / Navy
Land-based or shipborne capability for operating over-water in various maritime-related roles while supported by allied naval surface elements.
General transport functionality to move supplies/cargo or personnel (including wounded and VIP) over range.
Used in the Very-Important-Person (VIP) passenger transport role, typically with above-average amenities and luxuries as standard.
88.5 ft (26.97 m)
72.2 ft (22.01 m)
24.9 ft (7.60 m)
23,678 lb (10,740 kg)
42,108 lb (19,100 kg)
+18,431 lb (+8,360 kg)
(Showcased structural values pertain to the Sikorsky CH-53D Sea Stallion production variant)
2 x General Electric T-64-GE-413 turboshaft engines developing 3,925 horsepower and driving a six-blade main rotor and a four-blade tail rotor.
2 x 12.7mm BMG XM218 machine guns (side doors).
1 x 12.7mm BMG GAU-21 machine guns (rear ramp).
2 x 7.62mm MG3 machine guns (side doors)
3 x 12.7mm BMG GAU-21 machine guns (2 x side doors; 1 x rear ramp).
(Not all ordnance types may be represented in the showcase above)
Hardpoint Mountings: 2
YCH-53A - Prototype Sea Stallions; fitted with 2 x General Electric T64-GE-3 engines of 2,850 horsepower each; 2 examples produced.
CH-53A - Initial Production Model; deliveries to the USMC; 139 examples produced.
RH-53A - Based on the CH-53A production models; fitted with 2 x General Electric T64-GE-413 engines of 3,925 horsepower; US Navy use as mine countermeasures platform; 15 models converted from CH-53As.
TH-53A - Simplified USAF trainers based on the CH-53A production models.
CH-53D - Powered folding main rotor; increased cabin space for up to 55 passengers; improved transmission system; USMC usage; 125 production examples.
RH-53D - USN mine countermeasures variant based on the CH-53D production models; in-flight refueling capable; 2 x 12.7mm machine guns for self-defense; 30 new-build for USN and 6 examples delivered to the Iranian Navy pre-1979.
VH-53D - VIP transport variant; 2 CH-53Ds converted as such.
CH-53D Yas'ur - Israeli CH-53D model designation.
CH-53D Yas'ur 2000 - Improved Yas'ur; modifications handled by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI).
CH-53D Yas-ur 2005 - Improved and upgraded Yas'ur models with new transmission systems.
VH-53F - Proposed USN/USMC VIP variants.
CH-53G - German Export Model; based on the CH-53D; 112 examples produced; production split by Fokker and Sprey.
CH-53GS - Updated CH-53G models; implementation of anti-missile system and external fuel tanks; revised navigation and communications suite; upgraded T64-100 powerplants; self-defense machine guns.
CH-53GSX - Updated CH-53G production models; revised electronics; dust filters installed; external fuel tanks; countermeasures; six updated as such.
CH-53GA - Updated CH-53G production models; implementation of autopilot system; revised navigation and communications suites; revised cockpit; FLIR; electronic countermeasures; internal fuel tank capacility.
HH-53 "Super Jolly Green Giant" - Long Range Combat Search and Rescue platform; since retired.
MH-53 "Pave Low" - Heavy Lift Helicopter
CH-53E "Super Stallion" - Heavy-Lift Cargo Helicopter.
MH-53E "Sea Dragon" - USN Mine Countermeasures Platform.
Values are derrived from a variety of categories related to the design, overall function, and historical influence of this aircraft in aviation history.
The overall rating takes into account over 60 individual factors related to this aircraft entry.
Rating is out of a possible 100 points.
Relative Maximum Speed
This entry's maximum listed speed (196mph).
Graph average of 150 miles-per-hour.
Sikorsky CH-53D Sea Stallion operational range when compared to distances between major cities (in KM).
Max Altitude Visualization
The 3 qualities we look at for a balanced aircraft design are altitude, speed, and range.
Aviation Era Span
Showcasing era cross-over of this aircraft design.
Unit Production (417)
This entry's total production compared against the most-produced military and civilian aircraft types in history (Ilyushin IL-2 and Cessna 172, respectively).
Ribbon graphics not necessarily indicative of actual historical campaign ribbons. Ribbons are clickable to their respective aerial campaigns / operations / aviation periods.
Aviation developments of similar form and function, or related to, the Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion...
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