NAVAIR Depot Cherry Point to repair helos from ‘bone yard’ for fleet

Marine Corps, Navy Aircraft Fleets Struggle to Meet Demands of War on Terrorism

Three H-53 Sea Stallion helicopters were brought out of retirement and transported between Aug. 9-11 to Naval Air Depot Cherry Point, N.C., where they will be upgraded before being put back into active service.

According to Lt. Col. David Owen, NAVAIR Depot Cherry Point H-53 program manager, this marks this first time H-53s have been recalled from the nation’s war reserve, also known as the aircraft “bone yard,” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. The Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center located there maintains more than 5,000 excess DoD and Coast Guard aircraft for the nation’s war needs.

The H-53 is critical to the fleet and is the only heavy-lift helicopter in the Marine Corps. These helicopters can carry internal and external cargo and transport up to 55 troops. Essential for bringing necessary supplies to Marines on the front lines, the aircraft are also used for long-range insertion and search and rescue missions, and they are capable of in-flight refueling.

“It’s very much the workhorse of the Marine Corps and is the most heavily utilized aircraft in the fleet,” said Owen. “Unfortunately, there are just not enough of them. The Marine Corps has lost many H-53s in the last few years because of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and we need to increase the amount available.”

"We're activating these war reserve CH-53E helicopters to sustain high, hot and long duration heavy lift for U.S. and coalition forces engaged in the global war on terrorism. We haven't lost any aircraft to enemy action, but the harsh and unforgiving natural environment where these aircraft are relied upon for day-to-day logistics and assault support has taken its toll,” said Lt. Col. Stewart Gold, NAVAIR H-53 assistant program manager for logistics at Patuxent River, Md. "We're doing this, as well as some other on-going readiness enhancing strategies, to ensure heavy lift continues to be ready wherever and whenever the Marine Air-Ground Task Force or joint force commander needs it."

In order to meet present mission requirements, deployed Marines have to transfer aircraft between squadrons. “It’s a quite a lot of work. Each aircraft has a history and a different upkeep and configuration,” Owen said.

The three H-53s have been in the bone yard for about 11 years and are approximately 22 years old. Production on the H-53s ceased in 1999 and has not yet begun on its prospective replacement, the HLR or the Heavy Lift Replacement helicopter. In fact the production lines for aircraft Marines fly do not even exist today. “They’re probably eight to 10 years away,” Owen said.

NADEP artisans in the H-53 program and throughout the depot shops will spend the next 18-20 months upgrading these aircraft to current configurations.

“Every aspect of the depot will be touching this aircraft in some way,” Owen said.

Most aircraft repaired at the depot are currently in service. “Normally we don’t do all the modifications, airframes changes and accessory changes that will be necessary to restore these aircraft to the fleet,” Owen said. NADEP will perform twice the amount of work normally required to make an aircraft ready for flight.

The aircraft will be thoroughly evaluated by the H-53 production line and NADEP engineers. If nonstandard repairs are required, engineers will perform an analysis to ensure that the repair is safe. Logistics engineers will acquire the kits needed to make modifications to the airframes changes.

“These aircraft have been out there in the bone yard in long-term preservation for 11 years. Nothing has turned on these aircraft for 11 years so there will be a lot more replacement and repair of components and checking and testing of the components,” Owen said. “We will do special rework and get them up to the latest configurations and ready for all missions in the fleet.”

The aircraft will undergo a thorough series of quality checks, ground checks and flight tests.

“The H-53 has a very safe record. These will be very carefully scrutinized as all our aircraft are,” Owen said. “When they leave here, they’ll be as good as the newest ones.”

Although pulling aircraft from the bone yard is rare, if this rejuvenation of H-53s proves successful, the Marines may recall two more H-53s from AMARC in the next few years. Headquarters Marine Corps has provided funding for the current project.

“The main goal is to support those Marines out there on the front lines by delivering a quality product to ensure their success,” Owen said.

"This is just the beginning of a new and challenging project that will showcase the truly responsive strategic capabilities that NADEP Cherry Point provides to the war fighter," said Col. Paul Croisetiere, program manager for NAVAIR's H-53 Heavy Lift Helicopter Program at Pax River. "Our deployed Marines fighting the global war on terrorism in austere places like Iraq need vertical heavy lift as they continue to overcome insurgency. Anything we can move in-country by helicopter is one less thing that has to go by truck convoy and put Marines at risk of insurgent attack. This effort will directly ensure the critically needed heavy-lift capability continues to be there when they need it -- which is around the clock!"

The aircraft will be assigned according to the needs of the Marine Corps when work is completed at the depot.

The Navy Department is scrambling to meet the logistic needs of the war on terrorism