San Diego Union Tribune

January 27, 2005 

The Marines' heavy lift workhorse

BY Otto Kreisher
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON --The Marine Corps CH-53E that crashed Wednesday in western Iraq is the military's most powerful helicopter and a rugged workhorse. But the storied history of the CH-53 program has been marred by some notable mishaps.

Mechanical failures of an earlier model CH-53 during intense sand storms in 1980 were the primary reason for the disastrous failure of the attempt to rescue hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Weather might have been a factor in the 2002 crash of a Marine CH-53E in Afghanistan, which killed two and injured five. Another Super Stallion had a hard landing in Afghanistan that year. No one was injured and the aircraft was repaired.

A Navy MH-53E "Sea Dragon," being flown by a mine sweeping unit, was forced to make an emergency landing in the Atlantic off Virginia Beach on Tuesday, apparently because of mechanical problems. The eight people on board were rescued.

But statistics provided by the Navy Safety Center on Wednesday show that the safety record of the Marine Corps CH-53s over the past 10 years is better than overall Marine aviation, which includes usually safer airplanes.

Since 1995, the Marine CH-53s have flown 413,732 hours and had seven "Class A Mishaps" - which usually involves loss of the aircraft or a death. That is a major accident rate per 100,000 flying hours of 1.69. That's roughly half therate for all Marine aviation during the last five years - 3.21 per 100,000 flying hours.

The Marines' CH-53Es were grounded for eight months starting in August 2000 because of a series of mechanical problems that were resolved.

The CH-53s are produced by Sikorsky, one of the world's leading helicopter makers. The first models flew during the Vietnam War. But those were two-engine aircraft, called the "Sea Stallion." It was that model that flew the failed Iran rescue mission.

But starting in 1981, the Marines and the Navy began receiving the "Super Stallion" model, with three jet engines that gave it more speed, more lift power and more safety. The newer aircraft also have improved cockpit instruments and combat survival equipment.

The Army Special Operations Command flies a modified version called the "Pave Low."

The CH-53Es are "the Marines' primary heavy rotary wing lifter," said Robert Work, a retired Marine colonel now a national security analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment. "They are primarily used to lift heavy equipment, or bulky supplies, but can be used as troops transports," Work said.

With a normal crew of two pilots and a crew chief, they can carry up to 37 combat-loaded Marines, or 55 people without the bulky gear.

Although they have been a relatively safe helicopter, Work said, "any operation at night, depending on the altitude they were flying, is always complex."

The Super Stallion that crashed Wednesday went down about 1:30 a.m. Iraq time in what military officials said was bad weather.

Desert conditions, like those that prevail in large parts of Iraq and neighboring countries, are particularly hard on helicopters, creating visibility problems for pilots and wearing out rotor blades and engines.

The Super Stallions' three engines help it perform better at high altitudes, which was demonstrated in Afghanistan when Marine CH-53Es carried Special Operations troops on raids into high mountain areas the Army helicopters could not reach safely.

The CH-53Es also have longer range, which can be extended even farther by in-flight refueling. That longer range came in useful in the 1990s for emergency evacuation of Americans from the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia, during a violent civil war. It also was used to put Marines into Afghanistan in 2002,
more than 400 miles inland.

Marine CH-53Es flew from Navy amphibious ships deeply into hostile areas of Bosnia in 1995 to rescue Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady, whose F-16 had been shot down by a Serb missile.