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CH-53K helicopter to make international debut at ILA Berlin show

Sikorsky has confirmed that the CH-53K King Stallion will make its air show debut at next year's ILA Berlin event, as the airframer pursues a lucrative export contract with Germany.

The manufacturer had previously expressed an ambition to take the new heavy-lift helicopter to the biennial exhibition, but has now been given the go-ahead by the US Marine Corps, Sikorsky's domestic customer for the CH-53K.

Although the service is seeking to build time on the four engineering, manufacturing and development aircraft, to support an initial operating capability target of 2019, Frank Crisafulli, sales director international, heavy-lift helicopters at Sikorsky, says the USMC recognises the importance of "giving international visibility to the bird".

Export orders would help to lower the per-unit cost of the CH-53K, he adds, as well as potentially allowing the Marines to take advantage of capabilities demanded by overseas customers, such as a higher maximum take-off weight.

Germany is evaluating the King Stallion as replacement for its existing 81-strong fleet of 1970s-era CH-53GA/GS, which will be retired from 2023.

Berlin was due to begin the procurement process earlier this year, but inconclusive national elections and a subsequent failure to form a coalition government have pushed back successive deadlines.

Crisafulli points out that there is no production capacity issue requiring an early decision from Germany in order to meet the 2023 timeline, however.

Nonetheless, he says there a degree of urgency as a number of Germany's helicopters – and those of the other likely export candidate, Israel – are "going to start hitting up against the 10,000-hour airframe mark".

Tel Aviv is looking to replace its fleet of 23 elderly D-model CH-53 "Yas'ur" helicopters from 2024, and Brig Gen Nir Nin-Nun, commander of the Israeli air force's air support and helicopter division, was given the opportunity to experience the CH-53K during a 7 November test flight from NAS Patuxent River, Maryland.

In fact, Nin-Nun, a Boeing AH-64 Apache pilot, took the controls of the fly-by-wire King Stallion during the 90min sortie.

Despite being more at home with lighter helicopters, "flying the big iron there, he had no problems at all," says Crisafulli.

In both contests, the King Stallion faces competition from the CH-47 Chinook.

However, Crisafulli suggests that in future only Block II-standard Chinooks – due to deliver from 2023 - will be supported, leaving operators of the tandem-rotor type "faced with a bill to upgrade".

"If I had to spend $2 billion to upgrade my [CH-47]Ds, why might I not look at a brand-new helicopter?" he says.

The Block II Chinook modifications will lift its maximum take-off weight (MTOW) to 24,500kg (54,000lb), compared with the CH-53K's 33,600kg.

The USMC's total acquisition covers 200 examples of the CH-53K and Crisafulli believes it is "a realistic expectation" that export sales could match that figure.

"That was an aggressive number initially, but as we move forward I think that becomes more and more do-able."

He says Sikorsky has seen strong interest from a number of countries in the King Stallion, which should begin to firm up in the first quarter of 2018.

The CH-53K is powered by three GE Aviation T408 engines, each rated at 7,500shp (5,600kW).

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