Could particles of sand in the Israel desert seize up hiring for a $25 billion cog in Connecticut’s economic engine?
Sikorsky is not saying, but the Israeli Air Force reportedly is demanding an engine fix for a new helicopter so its pilots can fly with confidence in desert “brownout” conditions.
The Pentagon is reportedly taking notice as it continues flight testing in advance of buying 10 times as many for $25 billion.
The Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion is the largest helicopter ever flown by the U.S. military. Its cargo bay is large enough for an M1 Abrams battle tank and able to fly higher and faster than its predecessor CH-53E Super Stallion to avoid enemy ground fire.
Already putting seven King Stallion helicopters through flight tests, the Marines want 200 in all over a decade to replace its existing Super Stallion fleet that began entering service 40 years ago.
Israel wants 20 King Stallions itself — but according to a Monday report, has complained to Sikorsky after observing deterioration in engine components from extended exposure to dust and sand kicked up by rotors and wind.
Engine maker GE Aviation touts the King Stallion’s T408 engine compressors and turbines as “sand tolerant” and corrosion resistant, in a promotional brochure. The Pentagon has subjected the aircraft to sandstorm conditions as part of extensive flight testing at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, with one U.S. Army account likening the sand’s granularity there to moon dust.
In a statement forwarded by a spokesperson, Sikorsky indicated a majority of “technical issues” have been resolved without providing details and that it is confident it has “solutions to address the few outstanding issues” remaining. Six King Stallions are on the assembly line in Stamford, with another 30 in varying stages of production.
Sikorsky did not indicate whether any prolonged engine issue could delay hiring in Stratford. The manufacturer lists more than 60 open positions at present and employs about 13,000 people in total, including roughly 8,170 in Connecticut.
“We understand the sand ingestion issue and, as the aircraft integrator, have assigned a dedicated team of our most experienced engineers to work alongside [the Naval Air Systems Command] and GE to resolve this issue,” the Sikorsky statement reads.
A GE Aviation spokesperson indicated on Tuesday that work has proceeded on about 100 engines to date, including those now being tested aboard helicopters.
A subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, Sikorsky is the state’s third largest corporate employer after Electric Boat and Raytheon Technologies. As the case with Electric Boat — which last week received a Navy contract for a new attack submarine — Sikorsky has provided economic stability during the COVID-19 crisis through new hiring, even as Pratt & Whitney has cut jobs due to the pandemic’s impact on commercial aviation.
Lockheed Martin need look no further than Pratt & Whitney to know how engine delays can impact aircraft production schedules. Pratt & Whitney has had to troubleshoot issues with the F135 jet engine it makes for the F-35 joint striker, pushing back production of some planes at a Lockheed Martin factory in Fort Worth, Texas.
The Israeli Air Force measured engine performance falling below levels considered acceptable after just over 20 minutes exposure to dust kicked up by rotors, according to a Monday report in Breaking Defense. Multiple sources the publication did not cite by name described the dust problem as “very serious” and that IAF is demanding a fix before it will accept delivery of more aircraft. Israel raised no issues with the King Stallion in a formal statement last month confirming its selection of the helicopter for its military.
In early March, the Government Accountability Office issued a rebuke of Sikorsky’s own production schedule for the King Stallion, including the manufacturer’s extended testing timeline. The GAO document recommended Sikorsky limit production to six helicopters annually — the schedule calls for seven this year and 11 next — which the Department of Defense rejected. Sikorsky goes into full production mode late next year, peaking at about two dozen helicopters rolling off the Stratford assembly line annually between 2025 and 2029.
“Overlap between testing and buying larger numbers of helicopters means problems revealed during testing would have to be fixed on more helicopters already built,” GAO stated in the March report. “Such retrofits are costly.”
The Pentagon is keeping tabs on Israel’s issues with the King Stallion through its Operational Test and Evaluation office, whose approval Sikorsky requires for full-rate production. The Navy has already asked Sikorsky to correct several early King Stallion flaws, to include what it described as “low reliability” of the gearbox driving the main rotor; and an exhaust system design that it observed resulted in super-heated gases being sucked back into engines and striking the skin of the aircraft.
The CH-53K packs three T408 engines assembled in Lynn, Mass. by GE Aviation, along with another spare for each helicopter. The engine’s turbines are made MTU Aero Engines in Munich, Germany, which reported an average cost of $6.5 million for the first run of engines produced for the seven earliest models now undergoing Navy test flights.
After decades of reliance on its Black Hawk helicopter, the King Stallion is at the top of the immediate priority list for Paul Lemmo, who in January replaced the retired Dan Schultz as president of Sikorsky after previously leading Lockheed Martin’s development of the Littoral Combat Ship.
Two more major Pentagon programs are slated to hit full production on Lemmo’s watch: a new fleet of Marine One helicopters for the White House and rescue choppers for the U.S. Air Force. And Sikorsky is readying for a “fly off” competition in two years with Bell Helicopter for a new generation of vertical-lift aircraft that could furnish decades of work.
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