With dry ice and a thumping dance beat, Spirit AeroSystems opened the curtain on an important piece of its future on Thursday. Spirit held a celebration to mark completion of its first fuselage for the Sikorsky CH-53K helicopter for the U.S. Marine Corps.
Spirit has a contract for seven helicopters, some of which will be used solely for testing. That number likely will swell to 200 for the Marines, and could go beyond that if other service branches and other countries buy them.
The Marines have used versions of the CH-53 Sikorsky transport helicopter since 1963, but this latest version is a dramatic improvement over even the present CH-53E used by the Marines in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The CH-53E was first put into service in the early 1980s.
That technological improvement starts with Spirit’s nearly all-composite fuselage. That lowers its weight and improves its ability to survive combat.
Because of improvements in technology, the helicopter can carry three times as much weight (27,000 pounds in difficult conditions), fly farther, take on full pallets of material for quick loading and defend itself from ground fire and missiles. It has fly-by-wire controls.
“This aircraft looks like a 53E, but that’s about it,” said Thomas Laux, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy, who was at the event.
“It is far more capable, has far more ability to carry things, navigate, has greater fuel management. Everything about this is the next generation in capability,” he said.
The contract for the 200 helicopters is said to range between $20æbillion and $30 billion.
Mick Maurer, Sikorsky's president of military systems, said his conversations with Pentagon officials suggest that this program is one that will survive pretty well through the expected defense budget cuts.
“The best way to stay funded is to perform, and that will be the case with this program,” he said.
The Marines already have said they are suffering from a shortage of airlift capability.
The first fuselage on display Thursday is due for delivery by Dec. 23 to Sikorsky. Spirit CEO Jeff Turner said that workers had to push to get it done in time.
“I think there’s a wet paint dab or two on there,” he said jokingly.
But he said that Spirit actually was fairly comfortable about hitting its deadline. The company has the ability to design more precisely than other companies so that there is less work involved in the production.
Sikorsky selected Spirit soon after the company split from Boeing. Although Spirit didn’t have any experience with helicopters, it has deep experience with large structures built from composites.
“We went with who we thought was the best in the industry,” said Sikorsky’s Maurer.
Spirit will see big benefits from the program. It will provide several hundred jobs, although program employment will rise and fall in years to come as the need ebbs and flows.
The company will build several fuselages for assembly into the finished aircraft for ground testing. The helicopter won’t see flight testing until 2014, officials said, and won’t be deployed in any numbers until 2019.
Thursday also marked an important milestone for the company seeking to transform itself from a Boeing plant to a diversified aircraft supplier, Turner said.
“We needed to diversify the base, and this is an important piece of diversification for a couple reasons,” he said. “Certainly it’s a helicopter and it’s new customer and it’s military. We’ve done military derivatives of commercial airplanes, like the P-8A, but this is the first stand-alone military vehicle that we’ve been a part of building.”