The US Marine Corps’ (USMC’s) new heavy-lift helicopter has made its operational debut at a base on the East Coast.

Sikorsky’s CH-53K King Stallion is slated to replace the USMC’s CH-53E Super Stallion, also made by Sikorsky. The King Stallion represents a significant improvement over its predecessor, boasting 57% more horsepower and 63% fewer parts. The Super Stallion was first fielded in 1988.

King Stallion CH-53K first flight

Source: US Marine Corps

A US Marine with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 461 inspects a CH-53K King Stallion prior to its first operational flight at MCAS New River in North Carolina

The CH-53K is also the first fully fly-by-wire traditional helicopter in the USMC inventory. The tiltrotor Bell Boeing MV-22 Osprey is also a digitally controlled fly-by-wire aircraft.

The USMC originally awarded Lockheed Martin subsidiary Sikorsky the heavy lift contract for the CH-53K in 2006. The long-time helicopter manufacturer was charged with producing a heavy vertical-lift platform to move armoured vehicles, troops and supplies from offshore assault ships to landing sites far inland.

The basic requirements for the CH-53K were developed with a Pacific island campaign in mind. The USMC wanted an aircraft to launch from a ship, lift an external load of approximately 12,000kg (27,000lb) and transport that load at least 110nm (204km) ashore before returning to the assault ship.

The USMC says it ultimately expects to purchase 200 of the aircraft, with full operational capability to be reached in 2029.