PARIS (Reuters) - Sikorsky Aircraft has assured the U.S. Marine Corps that a change in its ownership will not derail its work on the CH-53K, a new heavy-lift helicopter the company is building for the Marines, the top Marine in charge of aviation told Reuters.
United Technologies Corp (UTX.N) this week announced it was getting out of the helicopter business and would announce by the end of the third quarter whether it would sell or spin off Sikorsky.
Lieutenant General Jon Davis, deputy commandant for aviation, said Sikorsky President Bob Leduc had promised to be fully transparent about the United Technologies process, and also assured him the transition would be seamless for the CH-53K program.
Davis said Sikorsky also told him it expected the first flight of the newest helicopter before the end of the year, and possibly as early as late October or early November despite having to change the design of the helicopter’s gear box.
He said he felt very positive about the program after a recent visit to the Sikorsky facility in West Palm Beach, Florida, where it is building the new helicopters.
He said enlisted Marines working on the aircraft had told him the aircraft’s design made it far easier to maintain than the current CH-53 E-model helicopter. “They feel they’ve got a winner from a maintenance standpoint,” he said.
Leduc told Reuters earlier this week that the company had not modeled the loads in the gearbox correctly initially, but was able to redesign the part fairly quickly. At the same, he said, the company also switched to use more robust steel instead of titanium for the helicopter’s quill shafts.
He said qualification testing of the gearbox would begin in August and should be done in late September or early October, followed by 175 hours of testing in the ground test vehicle.
“We’re making sure there’s no other surprises in there,” Leduc said, adding that he did not expect any adverse findings.
Leduc said the gearbox issue had affected the award fees earned, but that had already been factored into its financials.
Davis said he planned to revamp the maintenance process for the CH-53 E-model helicopter after a recent independent readiness review showed that 59 of about 100 aircraft in the fleet were not available for use, and that the readiness rate about half that of similar aircraft used by other services.
He said the changes could be made relatively quickly, but he might need to ask Congress for some additional funding.
Davis said it was imperative to boost the readiness of the CH-53E, since the helicopters would be in service for a long time. The new K-model helicopters are not slated to enter combat use until 2019.
“It’s a great airplane. We just have to maintain it differently,” he said.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Mark Potter