Ready For Takeoff?

July 26, 2018

A Lockheed Martin illustration shows the new Sikorsky HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter on a mission. Upgrades include improved armor and crashworthy seats. Illustration: Lockheed Martin

The HH-60G Pave Hawk fleet, which dates to the 1980s, has been hard-used over 18 years of nonstop Middle East missions as USAF’s combat search and rescue platform. A variant of the CH-47 Chinook was chosen in 2006 to replace the Pave Hawk, but after successful protests and other problems, the Boeing “CSAR-X” program was canceled in 2009.

It has taken another nine years to get to the point of production on a new Combat Rescue Helicopter, or CRH.

The CRH program is moving rapidly; so much so that the Air Force is adding funding to the program based on contractor Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky’s pledge that it can accelerate deliveries by several months.

The Pave Hawk II, as the HH-60W is called, offers a new generation of avionics, more onboard room for rescuers and rescued alike, and more life-saving capabilities for pararescuemen.

The Air Force plans to buy 112 of the aircraft; a figure that has remained stable for several years.

“We … own the mission to be able to fight our way into a hot landing zone, fight our way in against an enemy, and pick up a wounded soldier, sailor, or airman, marine at the point of injury,” USAF Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein told the Senate Armed Services Committee in May. “The Combat Rescue Helicopter allows us to do that mission.”


As the Air Force’s next generation of combat rescue aircraft, the Pave Hawk II is scheduled for a busy year of developments, as the first two development models are undergoing final assembly.

The Air Force is speeding the process along, requesting $1.14 billion in Fiscal 2019 as an installment on a five-year, $5.1 billion production effort. The idea is to convince Sikorsky it is safe to move quickly. The original $1.28 billion contract was awarded in June 2014, beginning a 75-month program for delivery, ending in September 2020. Sikorsky, however, is so confident in its process, it thinks it will beat that by moving the Milestone C (production decision) to the third quarter of 2019 and delivery in March 2020.

“We’re gonna be in there,” Tim Healy, Sikorsky’s head of Air Force programs, said at the production facility on May 23. “We’re gonna be close.”

The goal of getting helicopters to the operators faster has been “pulled … significantly to the left,” Healy said.

Air Force Magazine, during a visit at the production facility in early May, was the first media organization to view the EMD models on the production line. The sprawling facility includes lines for Army Black Hawks, new MH-60R Sea Hawks for the Navy, and a hidden area for the next generation Marine One helicopter for presidential transport. The first “Whiskey” model to enter production was stuffed with thousands of feet of orange cable and hundreds of small sensors that will be used for collecting flight test data.

Work on these aircraft began with the award of a June 2014 contract, which called for four EMD [Engineering and Manufacturing Development] aircraft and a trainer for maintenance that will be produced just like an operational helicopter.

The Pave Hawk II passed critical design review last spring and began an air vehicle test readiness review. This evaluation is “looking at all the qualification and development thus far,” Healy said, answering the question, “Have we completed what we need to now move on to flight test?”

The first completed helicopter is slated to go to Sikorsky’s West Palm Beach, Fla., facility for a first flight, late in the fourth quarter of this year. It will be handed over to USAF in next year’s second quarter in preparation for the full production decision the following quarter, Healy said.

Under the revised schedule, deliveries would start six months earlier than the original 75-month program called for. That, in turn would get the CRH to “the men and women who need the platform … one fiscal year earlier,” Healy said.The helicopter builds upon the Army’s newest UH-60M, with a modernized cockpit outfitted with four large displays, fed by two advanced mission computers. The data presented includes information from the helicopter’s five radios, radar, infrared cameras, radar warning system, laser warning system, missile warning system, and multiple data links. They include Link 16, Situational Awareness Data Link, and Common Integrated Broadcast. The new avionics allow a pilot to set automatic hover over a location, freeing the crew to focus on the rescue.

An HH-60W enters final assembly in Stratford, Conn. The aircraft may achieve first flight at the end of 2018—two months ahead of schedule. Photo: Daniel Rude/Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin

Another major upgrade is the new helicopter’s fuel system. While the Black Hawk uses a 360-gallon fuel tank, rescue missions typically demand much longer range, and USAF frequently has to add additional fuel tanks in the cabin. The Pave Hawk II’s internal tank is 660 gallons to meet the Air Force’s required profile: 195 nautical mile range, a 10-minute hover, and then another 195 miles.

Wider rotor blades on the Pave Hawk II will also improve range and hover stability; they are closer in size to those on the Marine Corps’ massive CH-53K King Stallion helicopter, also a Sikorsky product.

The HH-60W will have improved armor to stop armor piercing rounds and a more elegant side-mounted gun design. Special mission aviators and pararescuemen will have full-color displays to see mission data, and for the first time have crashworthy seats, which can fold up into the ceiling, instead of being forced to sit on the floor, with limited protection from sudden movements of the aircraft.

Speaking about procurement programs broadly, USAF’s top uniformed acquisition officer, Lt. Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr., told reporters in June he prefers not to give hard dates for when programs will proceed to their next milestone. “We will do it right,” he said, and taking this approach will likely save time and trouble “later.”