Combat Rescue Helicopter Program Faces Delays

Sikorsky’s HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter program is facing delays, according to a recent Pentagon report. Sikorsky artist rendering.

Issues in testing have pushed back the first flight of the Air Force’s Combat Rescue Helicopter program and could further delay a production decision, though the prime manufacturer has previously pushed to accelerate the program.

The Air Force in June 2014 awarded Sikorsky the original contract for the Combat Rescue Helicopter, with delivery scheduled for September 2020. The company told Air Force Magazine last spring that based on the progress it has made, it could accelerate the production decision to the third quarter of 2019, with first delivery in March 2020.

Sikorsky is developing the HH-60W helicopter, known as Pave Hawk II, based on the current Black Hawk but with several upgrades. However, those upgrades have run into issues in development and testing, the Defense Department’s director of operational test and evaluation said in its yearly evaluation of weapons systems.

“Qualification testing of many components of the aircraft have uncovered technical deficiencies that the Program Office is working to resolve,” the report states. “As a result, the program will begin flight test and operational assessment (OA-2) with a large number of CRH-specific systems in non-operationally representative configurations.”

Delays in production and acquiring data to support the airworthiness technical authority review has pushed the first flight back to February at the earliest, according to the report. The plan to begin flight testing in the second quarter for a fall 2019 production decision means the aircraft will not have an operationally ready tactical mission kit, Link 16 system, digital radar warning receiver, rescue hoist, gun mount, fuel cells, armor, and primary aircrew seating in time, because all these systems are going through design changes.

The aircraft has a different fuel cell system than the current Black Hawk, which is aimed at increasing its range, but testing determined manufacturing deficiencies that need to be resolved. The new fuel system is too heavy and does not meet military specifications for operating in a range of temperatures, according to the report.

During qualification testing, a production-representative live fire aircraft structural component was damaged, possibly delaying fuel cell testing.

The aircraft’s cabin and cockpit armor, a major upgrade from the current Pave Hawk, failed twice in testing, prompting redesign and remanufacture, and a new version will likely increase weight and not be ready in time for initial flight testing. Additionally, the primary aircrew seat failed during testing, requiring another redesign. There also is a redesign of the seat track pallet and insufficient analysis on the aircraft’s rescue hoist.

Going forward, the report recommends the USAF CRH Program Office adjust the schedule to allow for development of operational hardware to make sure testing is “meaningful and adequate” to support a production decision. Additionally, since there are changes to the system requirements, the program office needs to determine if the new helicopter will actually be more survivable than the current Pave Hawk.

“Sikorsky’s Combat Rescue Helicopter program is progressing and we are shifting from development to production and test,” company CRH program director Greg Hames told Air Force Magazine in an email. “We now have two aircraft at the Sikorsky Development Flight Center in West Palm Beach, Fla. Both aircraft will enter into flight test before mid-year.”