Upgrades Could Double H-53 Availability

NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER, Md. — Navy officials are upgrading the fleet of H-53 Navy and Marine helicopters in hopes of doubling their average flight availability by 2013, according to a naval aviation spokeswoman.

The increases are made possible by a $150 million engine upgrade that includes installing titanium nitride-coated blades on helicopter engine compressors during repairs and overhauls. The hard coating protects the blades from sand abrasion, which reduced the average time on wing during the 1991 Persian Gulf War to just more than 100 hours, meaning some helicopters spent as much time having their engines overhauled as they did in the air.

Half of Navy and Marine H-53s have been upgraded, and officials expect all H-53s to have received them by 2013.

The result would be like providing twice the number of Navy and Marine H-53 helos in the inventory, which are used for everything from carrying Marine Humvees over Iraq to searching for mines in the Persian Gulf.

If all goes as planned, Navy officials say, they will have increased the scheduled time on wing of each helicopter’s three T64 turboshaft engines from less than 350 hours in 2003 to 1,100 hours by 2013. The average time on wing for an H-53 engine was 665 hours last year, Naval Air Systems Command spokeswoman Stephanie Vendrasco said.

The maximum limit — the point at which ground crews have to take the engine offline — also will increase by nearly half, from 2,400 hours to 3,200 hours. The Navy flies the mine-hunting MH-53E Sea Dragon variant from ships, while the Marine Corps flies the CH-53D Sea Stallion and CH-53E Super Stallion for its heavy-lift missions.

“This technology more than doubled the reliability of T64 engines operated in our deployed helicopters,” said Stoney MacAdams, assistant program manager for the Heavy Lift Helicopter Program Office.

Maintenance-time concerns were exacerbated by pressure on ground crews, which often could not begin working on helicopters for several days because of work backlogs. That created more pressure on helicopters in use, driving them even more quickly toward the threshold.

Naval aviation officials began the helicopter upgrades two years ago. In order to find out how well the coating has worked, technicians tested one engine for four months. In a laboratory next to a “hush house” here, the upgraded engine is being run so hard and so hot that engineers say the wear it’s experiencing is equivalent to 15 to 20 years of normal fleet operation. The test will be completed in June.

The upgrades are expected to save taxpayers at least $22 million per year.

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