The USMC’s newest helicopter, the CH-53K King Stallion heavy transport, successfully lifted a Navy F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. Details of the demo, as well as accompanying images, were made public on January 23.
The exercise occurred at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station (Maryland). A CH-53K helicopter belonging to the USMC Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron One (VMX-1) participated in it, lifting the Navy’s first F-35C prototype, the “CF-01” or “CF-1”. The CF-01 debuted in 2009 and made its maiden flight in 2010.
Even though the CH-53K can lift airplanes, it looks like this is the first time it has lifted an F-35 fighter of any kind.
Marines from Combat Logistics Battalion 24 (CLB-24) helped run the exercise, which was meant to help develop tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) for CH-53K King Stallion “helicopter support team operations.”
In the footage, we see CLB-24 Marines preparing the F-35C CF-01 for transport, attaching chains and another rigging to its fuselage. Next, the F-35C locks onto the CH-53K before the helicopter lifts the jet into the air.
The CH-53K program, chosen to replace the Marine Corps fleet of CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters from manufacturer Sikorsky (now a Lockheed Martin subsidiary), which entered service in 1981, has suffered numerous delays and setbacks.
In development since 2006, the USMC originally hoped to reach initial operational capability with the King Stallion (also made by Sikorsky) in 2015, but this was consistently delayed.
The first CH-53K was delivered to the US Marine Corps in May of 2018, and by April 2022, the service had stated that the aircraft had entered service. The Navy gave Sikorsky the go-light to commence full-scale manufacture of the helicopter in December 2022.
In total, the USMC plans to procure 200 CH-53Ks; the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) indicates that the aircraft should declare its full operational capability in the fiscal year 2029.
The latest pictures further attest to the CH-53 K’s heavy-lift potential. As stated by Sikorsky, the helicopter has a maximum cargo capacity of 36,000 pounds.
It is the largest single-main-rotor helicopter in the US military’s arsenal (16,329 kg). The company claims this allows it to hoist everything from Joint Light Tactical Vehicles (JLTVs) to Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs).
The F-35C, made by Lockheed Martin and used by the Navy and USMC, has a curb weight of 34,800 pounds (15,785 kg). Since the F-35C CF-01 lifted by the CH-53K is at least partially gutted, the plane’s weight would have been less than that figure.
Perhaps more than this, the CH-53 K’s ability to lift other military aircraft demonstrates its capabilities. This is something that many other helicopters need help to do.
In fact, the CH-53 K’s first “real” mission was to lift a crashed MH-60S Seahawk in California in 2021. Compared to its predecessor, the CH-53K can also lift heavier objects long distances.
Externally, it is designed to carry up to 27,000 pounds at a distance of 110 nautical miles in a high and hot environment. This compares to the CH-53E’s ability to carry 9,654 pounds over the same distance.
The subtitles on the DVIDS images explain that the exercise is part of the US Marine Corps’ “modernization and preparation to respond internationally to emergent crises or emergencies.”
The Marines’ capacity to transport F-35s through CH-53Ks has potential utility in a wide variety of operational settings. For an island-hopping battle in the Indo-Pacific, especially against China, the capacity to get F-35s out of remote regions could be crucial.
In this case, damaged or disabled F-35Cs and Bs, valuable assets packed with sensitive technology, could be smuggled out of remote islands via CH-53Ks. But just being able to do this for general aircraft recovery is very useful outside of the Pacific context. CH-53s have been a key means of aircraft recovery for decades.