In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military's largest helicopter dutifully performs its assault support missions in a hostile and austere environment, and often at high altitudes. Indeed, with 55-troop and more than 28,000-pound (12,700-kg) load capacities, the long-range, triple-engine H-53E Super Stallion has been serving the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps since the early 1980s. A peek into the cockpit, with its plethora of steam gauges, reveals the aircraft's aging state. It needs an update--which is why the Navy and Marines plan to acquire 154 new helicopters to succeed the H-53E in a program dubbed the Heavy Lift Replacement (HLR). The HLR will have new avionics and, perhaps, a fly-by-wire control system.
Col. Paul Croisetiere is program manager for the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command H-53 Heavy Lift Helicopters Program PMA 261. He is a U.S. Navy Test Pilot School graduate who was heavily involved in the V-22 Osprey program. He is a graduate of the Naval Academy and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. At Patuxtent River NAS, Croisetiere and Capt. Tom Page, PMA-261 avionics systems project officer, describe plans for the Super Stallion's and HLR's cockpits.
Avionics: Tell us first about the fielded H-53E.
Croisetiere: What we have is an aircraft with 1960s and '70s technology. In the case of the FLIR [forward-looking infrared], 1980s technology. When you get into the cockpit, you'll see that all we have are steam gauges. The most modern avionics we have is the FLIR. We love it.
Avionics: Are all H-53Es equipped with FLIR?
Croisetiere: Due to budget constraints we don't have FLIR for all of our aircraft. So we take a FLIR from an aircraft on the flight line and put it on one being deployed and send it forward.
Avionics: What are the H-53's missions?
Croisetiere: It's classical logistical support that this aircraft is designed to do in support of the Marines: carrying cargo, ammo, all the stuff the Marines need. This aircraft is designed primarily for external loads. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the aircraft go long distances to outposts several hundred miles away.
Avionics: Any new development for the H-53E?
Croisetiere: Yes, the IMDS [integrated mechanical diagnostic system]. It's built by Goodrich Aerospace Fuel and Utility Systems Division. The H-53 is the lead platform in the Navy for the system. It's also going on the A-20 and H-60. We've completed the OpEval [operational evaluation], and in December we got a full-rate production decision from our executive officer.
Avionics: What does IMDS do?
Croisetiere: What's exciting about the IMDS is that, from a maintenance perspective, it provides us with a `smart' aircraft. It senses vibrations [using more than 40 vibration sensors] and other exceedences along the drive train, and it allows us to see when components are going bad.
We have sensors that go from the engine all the way back to the tail. One of the greatest benefits [of IMDS] has been tracking this large [seven-blade] main rotor head. With this technology, we've roughly cut the maintenance time down by a third and the cost down by a third, as well. It saves us troubleshooting time.
Avionics: Does IMDS data go to the flight crew or just to maintenance?
Page: We've got basically the two CDNUs [control display navigation units] up front, and we can monitor aircraft performance in real time during flight, although that is not routinely done. We put a PCMCIA [memory] card in, and it records all the data at the same time. The card is carried into maintenance control, where it's downloaded and analyzed.
Avionics: Will the Heavy Lift Replacement use the IMDS?
Croisetiere: We'll probably have a more mature, prognostic system that takes maintenance to another level. With some of the concepts we're looking at, the aircraft can `talk' to maintenance control, perhaps via a data link capability or modified Bluetooth technology, when it's flying back to base. If a part is going bad, you can order the part during flight, and the part could be wheeled out to the aircraft as it's shutting down.
Avionics: Are you planning on-condition parts replacement?
Croisetiere: We're working to do that. We're getting the engineering staff to establish the policies we need for condition-based maintenance. That work is started. I hope that in the next year or two, we will see progress in getting condition-based maintenance.
Avionics: When will you start installation?
Croisetiere: We've already started. We've got between 20 and 30 IMDS systems purchased. We're working with the Marine Corps and the Navy to get funding to buy additional systems, so we can outfit our entire fleets as quickly as possible.
Avionics: Let's talk about the HLR.
Croisetiere: Yes, the Heavy Lift Replacement, but it's known euphemistically as H-53X. Everybody recognizes that the HLR aircraft's design will look almost exactly like the current H-53.
Avionics: It will be a Sikorsky product then. Was there no competition?
Croisetiere: Because it will be an H-53 derivative, our recommendation is that Sikorsky Aircraft be the prime integrator. That has not been formally approved yet at the highest levels at OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense]. We still have to work to get through the various agencies within the Defense Department to get to Milestone B, which will allow us to enter the system design and demonstration [SDD] phase. We're looking to get to SDD between August and December of this year.
Avionics: Starting with Milestone B?
Croisetiere: We will be allowed to enter into the acquistion life cycle at Milestone B because the technology we're proposing to use is mature and does not require a lot of science and technology investment.
Avionics: So you will adopt avionics from other programs?
Croisetiere: What we're trying to do is use commonality, if possible. We hope to leverage the efforts in various programs in the Department of Defense, including the H-1 and the H-60 in both the Army and Navy, and any other programs that are developing cockpits. We want to take that technology and bring it over to our aircraft, to make solutions as supportable as possible by reusing as much software as we can while reducing risk. The AH-1Z is about to come out of development, and H-60 is out of development, and they've already got a fielded cockpit. At some point in the future, we also hope to have some degree of commonality with the V-22 Osprey.
Avionics: Affordability is key then?
Croisetiere: It's important to design an aircraft that's affordable. For example, we need to get displays that stay on the aircraft a long time and reduce the maintenance costs. We also need to see the footprint of supplies aboard ship get much smaller; the parts must stay on the wing a lot longer and be more reliable. We need radios that are going to stay on through the whole deployment.
Because the [H-53E] has the oldest technology of the fleet and hasn't been upgraded since it's been in service, it has the highest ownership costs within the Navy and Marine Corps. One of our goals is to make this aircraft affordable to operate.
Avionics: What exactly is your goal?
Croisetiere: We're running a little over 40 maintenance man hours per flight hour. We believe we can drop that to below 15 maintenance man hours per flight hour. It sounds aggressive, but when you first consider how old the technology is on this aircraft and you then look, for example, at the H-60 with its modern technology--[the H-60 is] seeing readiness rates above 90 percent, largely because it's got new avionics.
Interestingly, we have old gyros on this airplane that have a current MTBF [mean time between failures] of 200 hours, and we're looking to take that to at least 10,000 hours. This is just one of those realm-of-the-possible examples; we think this goal is achievable.
Avionics: Turning to capabilities, will FLIR imagery appear on the HMD's visor?
Croisetiere: It could, but those are design decisions that will be made in development. We'll look at the tradeoffs and take all the best ideas that are out there.
Page: We don't have a targeting FLIR. We use FLIR for navigational purposes only.
Avionics: How will the cockpit panel display appear?
Croisetiere: We don't have a set configuration. We've looked at different potential configurations, including with four displays, either in portrait or landscape format. Because the panel is so big, there probably aren't many restrictions in the design considerations.
Avionics: You want to offload gauges?
Croisetiere: We want to get rid of all the round dials. We have six KPPs [key performance parameters], and three of them are logistics KPPs. By getting rid of the obsolete analog gauges, we will reduce repair costs and the amount of material that we take with us when we deploy. We also allow flexibility in cockpit design by replacing the entire center console with just one display.
Avionics: What KPPs apply to avionics?
Croisetiere: The one KPP that is specific to avionics, although others are related to it, is a requirement to meet IERs [information exchange requirements]. IERs say who we need to talk to, how we need to talk to them, and how critical those communications may be. The HLR ORD [operational requirements document] clearly defined the IERs, but because our ORD is being changed to a CDD [capability development document], we now have what's called a net ready KPP, or NR-KPP. It will help define what sort of data exchange systems the HLR will have to have.
Avionics: What about communications equipment?
Croisetiere: We will be operating on the global information grid [GIG--a Department of Defense initiative to create an overarching communications framework], and we all have to come up with some solutions as far as what data link we're going to use, what data we're going to transfer, and how to transfer it. We'll use basically Internet protocol when the actual aircraft gets used.
Avionics: You plan to incorporate HLR into network centric warfare?
Croisetiere: Yes, network centric operations and warfare is a Navy-level incorporation of the GIG. It will entail tactical and logistics operations, even communications and surveillance.
Avionics: And you seek open architecture in the HLR cockpit?
Croisetiere: Yes. The ability to quickly spiral new technology, and not cost us an arm and a leg to make software changes, is primary. We're looking to be able to integrate numerous systems, both legacy and new systems, into a cockpit that will evolve as technology evolves. This coincides with the idea of commonality. If we have an open system, other programs will develop open systems to leverage the integration.
Avionics: What about the data buses?
Croisetiere: Well, on this aircraft [H-53E], we currently don't have a data bus that ties all systems together. We have only an antiquated 1553 bus that handles the transfer of GPS data. Because of the Internet protocol requirement, we will probably have a data bus technology that's still compatible with current technology, such as a more robust 1553 system, but will still handle additional processing requirements, perhaps with multiple 1553s or an Ethernet-based bus.
Avionics: Will you have to equip for any new missions?
Croisetiere: We're largely going to do that same mission, but because of network centric warfare, there is an increased ability to perform distributed operations, where you have units far out in the field, operating by themselves and at long distances from their home bases.
Avionics: That calls for long-range communications ?
Croisetiere: Yes, there is a requirement to have long-range communication and to be able to transfer data. For example, we could have a crew on a mission with three external loads for three different and widely separate units--one at location A and another at location B, etc. Because the crew would be in an information network, they could see a change in the mission on their displays while in flight.
Satcom is a must. HLR would have the capability to use satcom from either side of the cockpit via an ARC-210 radio variant, perhaps the ARC-210/1851. Additionally, we're looking at having a separate antenna assembly to allow embarked troop commanders to utilize their own satcom radios by just plugging into an existing jack. This allows the troop commander to communicate with higher headquarters, send and receive updated tactical information, and ensure that the troops in back have the latest intelligence information as they debark.
Avionics: What navigation gear do you hope to have in HLR?
Croisetiere: The envisioned nav package will be compliant with all ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization], FAA and military nav requirements, using TACAN, ILS and GPS. We will gather the GPS data and display [the aircraft position] on an integrated moving map. Additionally, our com suite will utilize data links to reduce the need for routine voice communications, such as civil approach and departure instructions. Eventually, we may migrate to JPALS [joint precision approach and landing sysem].
Avionics: You fly cargo pretty low. What about obstacle avoidance?
Croisetiere: Currently we plan to use a ground proximity warning system with a radar altimeter. It will use preloaded map elevation data to warn you of rising terrain or obstacles. However, due to our operational requirements, we aren't planning to use any sort of active sensor--though we could use a system that integrates FLIR imagery with night vision goggle imagery to create a view that allows pilots to see in nighttime without the blinding effects that lights in urban environments can cause.
Avionics: As prime, Sikorsky will select the avionics for HLR?
Croisetiere: The Defense Department will be deeply involved with the prime integrator in assessing the merits of various systems. We have to be sure we meet all the technical requirements and be affordable, as well. But in the end, Sikorsky will serve as the integrator.
Avionics: Will there be an avionics competition?
Croisetiere: Yes. There will be down-select process. We won't start that activity until we get through Milestone B, so it probably won't occur until later on this year.
At some point an RFP [request for proposals] will be put out by the prime integrator. The industry will respond, and then we'll take a thorough look at all the candidates. The government will be deeply involved with this, and the prime integrator will down-select the candidates.
Avionics: Can you tell us when you expect the down-select?
Croisetiere: No. We have certain acquisition milestones to get to, and I can't give you a date. We probably won't start until later on this calendar year with that activity.
Avionics: The H-53 has a lot of wiring.
Croisetiere: We're going to totally redesign the wiring in the HLR. One of the issues we're dealing with in some aircraft in our fleet is the aromatic polyimide wiring. We're looking to replace it in our current aircraft because it frays easily in the conditions we operate in, and it's difficult to maintain.
Avionics: The HLR will have a countermeasures suite?
Croisetiere: We could possibly have a laser-directed countermeasures system or a countermeasure system that uses infrared to detect surface-to-air missiles. But that's something we will look at to see if it's an affordable option for us.
Avionics: Have you decided to make the HLR a fly-by-wire machine?
Croisetiere: We're certainly going to look at it, and if we can afford it, we're going to put it in. It plays into the whole reliability effort. Fly-by-wire plays into several of our KPPs. It plays into the survivability KPP because you can route the wiring in places that are less accessible to small arms fire [than the push tubes and control tubes now used].
Avionics: And, of course, all systems have to be marinized.
Croisetiere: Yes. That means the aircraft must withstand the daily punishment of weather extremes, salt water and the harsh conditions associated with operations on ships and in austere locations. It also requires, among other things, electromagetic hardening to shipboard radiation.
Avionics: There's talk of combining the HLR with the Army's Joint Heavy Lifter.
Croisetiere: The HLR is a JROC [Joint Requirements Oversight Council]-certified requirement that the Marine Corps needs today to meet its critical amphibious assault mission as defined by the Marine Corps' MEB2015 study. The H-53E fleet will start reaching its design life limits in FY11 at the rate of 15 aircraft per year. The Joint Heavy Lifter isn't expected to enter operational service until 2020 at the earliest.