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The first Sikorsky HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter as it enters final assembly at Stratford, Conn., in February. Sikorsky photo

STRATFORD, Conn. — The next generation of Air Force combat rescue is taking shape on a new Connecticut production line, where two development models of the HH-60W helicopter are undergoing final assembly ahead of flight testing late this year.

Sikorsky officials are confident in the progress on the helicopter, known in the factory as “Whiskey,” heartened by the Air Force’s budget request of $1.14 billion in Fiscal 2019. The funds will help accelerate development and shrink the deployment schedule. When the original $1.28 billion contract for engineering, manufacturing, and development for the helicopter was awarded in June 2014, it launched a 75-month program aimed at delivery on Sept. 26, 2020. With the additional funding and progress made so far, Sikorsky is now executing a schedule that would bring the Milestone C production decision in the third quarter of 2019, and delivery in March 2020.

“We’re gonna be in there,” Tim Healy, Sikorsky’s head of Air Force programs, said at the production facility on May 23. “We’re gonna be close.” Healy explained Milestone C is the most important because “it gets capability to the warfighter ... we pulled that significantly to the left.”

Air Force Magazine was the first media organization to visit the combat rescue production line, where the two EMD models move along a reconfigured line next to where Sikorsky is building new MH-60R Seahawk helicopters for the US Navy. One Whiskey model is stuffed with thousands of feet of orange cables and hundreds of small sensors that will be used for collecting flight test data.

The original June 2014 contract, which came before Lockheed Martin purchased Sikorsky, calls for four EMD aircraft, along with a maintenance trainer that will move down the production line just like an operational helicopter. The first example passed its critical design review last spring, and the next program milestone comes in July, when it will undergo an air vehicle test readiness review. This evaluation is “looking at all the qualification and development thus far,” answering “have we completed what we need to now move on to flight test?” Healy said.

First flight is expected late in the fourth quarter of this year at Sikorsky’s facility in West Palm Beach, Fla.

After first flight, the sensor-laden aircraft will go to the Air Force in the second quarter of 2019, in preparation for the big full production decision the following quarter, Healy said. Under the revised schedule, deliveries would start half a year faster than the original 75-month program. That, in turn would get the CRH to “the men and women who need the fiscal year earlier,” Healy said.

The Air Force’s budget request, which is the first installment on a $5.1 billion, five-year production effort, is meant to “incentivize” Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin to move quickly.

“If they reach the milestone before the date that we anticipated ... then ... we immediately go into production and buy aircraft at a certain rate,” the Air Force’s top uniformed acquisition officer, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, said at an AFA-sponsored event in October 2017.

The Air Force plans to purchase 112 of the aircraft. The Whiskey model is a heavily modified version of the Army’s latest iteration of the UH-60 Black Hawk, the UH- 60M. The modernized cockpit has four large displays which are fed by two advanced mission computers. The data presented include information from the helicopter’s five radios, radar, infrared cameras, radar warning system, laser warning system, missile warning system, and multiple data links. They include Link 16, Situational Awareness Data Link, and Common Integrated Broadcast.

The advanced avionics include new capabilities, such as a touch-of-a-button program to choose a hovering location. A pilot flying over water for a rescue will be able to press a button when the HH-60W flies over the site, and onboard computers would calculate environmental and wind conditions, then automatically circle the aircraft back to hover over that spot without further inputs. Pararescuemen could then deploy.

All of these advanced avionics sit in racks in a large air-conditioned room deep in the Stratford facility, attached to a large simulator where coders and engineers are testing the systems.

The real mission avionics reside in the nose of the helicopter. While Sikorsky admits the new fairings on the nose will make it difficult for USAF rescue crews to paint their trademark “Pedro” mustache on the aircraft—as they do with today’s Pave Hawk fleet--the heavier weight on the front provided a bonus. It changed the center of gravity on the helicopter, letting designers strengthen the frame and place a larger fuel tank behind the cabin to balance things out.

The generic Black Hawk, upon which the HH-60G is based, uses a 360-gallon fuel tank. Air Force crews need more fuel for longer flights, so the Pave Hawk is usually fitted with large auxiliary tanks. The Whiskey’s internal fuel tank, though, is 660 gallons, which means auxiliary tanks aren’t needed to met the required mission profile: 195 nautical miles range, a 10 minute hover, and then another 195 miles. Compared with the Black Hawk, the larger tank does steal some cabin space, but it’s only 18 cubic inches and saves the drag and time to mount auxiliary tanks.

The pilots enjoy increased ballistic protection by way of thicker armor. The armor plating in the Pave Hawk only protects from standard 7.62 mm ball ammunition but the W model will add protection from 7.62 mm armor-piercing rounds.

Versus the Pave Hawk, the W model has a “more elegant” side-gun mounting design. They won’t stick out as far from the aircraft and will be able to universally accept GAU-2, GAU-18, and GAU-21 guns, Healy said.

Special mission aviators and pararescuemen will be able to see mission data in the back of the aircraft, where three full-color displays are mounted. For the first time, pararescuemen will have crash-worthy seats, which can be folded up to the ceiling of the cabin. In the Pave Hawk, PJs sit on the cabin floor and take their chances.

Sikorsky is under contract for 39 training “devices,” which will include full-motion simulators for the pilots and special mission aviators. Additionally, there are operational flight trainers and part-task trainers focused on systems such as landing gear and hoists. Sikorsky is also developing maintenance system trainers for crew chiefs to work on at the Fort Eustis, Va. schoolhouse.