Sikorsky Aircraft's CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter being built for the U.S. Marine Corps completed its first test flight on Tuesday, about seven months later than expected due to a problem with its main gear box, company and military officials said.
The successful 30-minute first test flight marks a major milestone for the CH-53K program and Sikorsky, a unit of United Technologies Corp.
The Marine Corps expects to spend $29 billion to buy 200 of the new helicopters in coming years, with an initial squadron slated to be ready for combat use by 2019. Officials say the new helicopters will be far more powerful, easier to maintain and easier to fly.
The new helicopter will carry three times as much as the current aging CH-53E helicopter in challenging high altitude and heat, about 27,000 pounds (12,247 kg) versus 9,000 pounds (4,082 kg) for the older model.
"This is a key step toward fielding this brand-new capability," Marine Corps Colonel Hank Vanderborght told reporters after the flight. He said the aircraft would give the Marine Corps greater ability to move cargo from ship to shore and participate in disaster relief missions.
Lockheed Martin Corp is expected to complete its $9 billion takeover of Sikorsky by late October or early November.
Vanderborght said he did not expect the takeover to affect the program.
The newly designed K-model has roughly the same footprint as the E-model but has a far larger inside loading space, which will enable Marines to load palettes of equipment and gear directly from cargo planes onto the helicopters.
Vanderborght said the gear box problem would likely result in a five-month delay in the expected start of production of the new helicopters until January 2017.