The Marine Corps CH-53E heavylift choppers aboard the assault ship Kearsarge on her humanitarian cruise to South America are more than 20 years old on average. For a helicopter, that’s pretty damn old. But the hardworking maintainers of squadron HMH-464, based in North Carolina, keep the classic birds in top shape … and in the “front office” the veteran choppers boast one of the most sophisticated cockpits around, cobbled together from bits and pieces of high tech plus a handful of low-watt light bulbs. It’s improvised engineering at its martial finest.
It’s a pitch black night on Saturday as six of 464′s pilots take turns flying one CH-53E for touch-and-go landings on Kearsarge‘s deck. They’re keeping their night landing qualifications current. Meanwhile, several squadron members including Corporal Justin Bauer, an avionics specialist, and Captain Jeff Hullinger, a flier, keep watch in the cockpit of a parked CH-53E. Outside, you can’t see your hand in front of your face. But inside the two choppers -– one flying, one parked -– the world is crystal-clear in crisp blacks and greens, courtesy of new Forward-Looking Infrared turrets and the latest night-vision goggles.
The turret –- a black ball hanging under the CH-53E’s nose -– feeds an IR image to two flat-screen displays in the cockpit, one each for the pilot and co-pilot. The image is better than TV quality. Paired with new night vision goggles that are sensitive enough to work on starlight but smart enough to “dial down” many sudden light blooms, the IR system makes night flying possible in all but the hairiest conditions.
On the other hand, the system is a pain to maintain, Bauer says. He surveys the CH-53E’s cockpit equipment: the new IR system; the GPS, a vintage model from 1993; the analogue dials, from the 1980s; and one ancient warning light panel lit by tiny, fragile incandescent bulbs that require constant changing. All this tech –- both cutting edge and nearly obsolete –- is kluged together by a nightmare of wires and harnesses. In sum, it’s one of the most capable chopper cockpits around, but it’s far from ergonomic.
But all that could change in the next couple years, if the 25-year-old CH-53Es get a promised “glass cockpit” upgrade that will replace all the mixed-and-matched systems with newer and better-integrated ones feeding five big displays. And then, just a few years after that, the Marines should begin replacing the long-serving E model birds with K models, which will be even more advanced.
There’s a downside, Hullinger says. All these high-tech systems can actually be a “crutch.” He points at the fleeting green-and-black image, seen on the CH-53’s displays, of a Navy MH-60S search-and-rescue chopper flying cover over the Marines. As far as he knows, Hullinger says, the Navy aviators aren’t using any IR systems at all, just their eyeballs … and sheer skill.