In the years following World War II the Marine Corps embraced the concept of vertical assault, and constantly sought to procure increasingly capable helicopters that could transport men and material to the battlefield. When first delivered to the Marine Corps in October 1964, the CH-53A Sea Stallion possessed an improved load carrying capability as opposed to its predecessors, able to successfully transport either a one and a half ton truck and trailer, a Hawk missile system, an Honest John missile and trailer, or a 105mm howitzer. In a troop carrying configuration, it could accommodate thirty-eight fully equipped personnel or twenty-four stretchers (the CH-53D could carry up to fifty-five troops). The Sea Stallion was also fitted with a watertight lower section for emergency water landings and all but the first thirty-four models featured hard points for towed minesweeping equipment. The CH-53D incorporated folding main and tail rotors for shipboard operations.
Deliveries of the CH-53A coincided with the escalation of American military involvement in Vietnam. In December 1966, four new CH-53As of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 463 arrived at Marble Mountain Air Facility near Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam. So impressive was their performance—the four aircraft retrieved 100 downed helicopters from the field in only four months of operations—that the remainder of the squadron was rushed through their pre-deployment preparations and sent to Vietnam. By June 1968 HMH-463 fielded nineteen CH-53As at Marble Mountain.
HMH-463’s experience mirrored that of the other HMHs that rotated in and out of Vietnam. The Sea Stallion proved ideally suited to the tactical situation that existed in-country. In their fight against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars, leatherneck ground forces operated from distant fire bases that could not be supplied overland. Since no helicopter in the Marine Corps inventory could match the Sea Stallion when it came to load carrying capacity, the CH-53A played an important role in keeping these jungle outposts resupplied. It was a monumental effort. During the first three months of 1969, the helicopters of Marine Air Group (MAG) 16, which included HMH-463, logged 47,346 sorties per month, carrying 83,630 troops and passengers and 11,550 tons of cargo.
Other notable use of CH-53A and -53D Sea Stallions in Southeast Asia included the 1975 evacuation of personnel from Saigon, Republic of Vietnam and Phnom Penh, Cambodia during the end of American involvement in Southeast Asia (Operations Eagle Pull and Frequent Wind), and that same year the rescue of American crewmen from the merchant ship Mayaguez, who were being held by Cambodians on the heavily defended island of Koh Tang.
Variants of the Sea Stallion also served in Navy and Air Force colors. Equipping Mine Countermeasures Squadron (HM) 12 during Operation End Sweep in 1973, Sea Stallions helped clear North Vietnamese waters of mines, while Air Force birds called “Jolly Green Giants” supported search and rescue of downed pilots in Vietnam. RH-53Ds participated in the ill-fated attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980 and also conducted minesweeping operations in the Suez Canal and Persian Gulf to support American interests in the Middle East.
During its service, the CH-53 also performed notable flights demonstrating its capabilities, among them a series of loops and rolls at a gross weight of 27,000 lb. at g-forces ranging from -2 to 2.8 and long distance speed records from New York to Washington, D.C. (156 M.P.H.) and New York to Boston (163 M.P.H.)
The Museum's example of the Sea Stallion is a CH-53D (Bureau Number 157159) that was delivered in May 1970. It was one of the last CH-53Ds to serve in the Marine Corps, flying its final combat missions with HMH-362 in Afghanistan before delivery to the museum in 2011.
Manufacturer: Sikorsky Aircraft Division of United Aircraft Corporation
Dimensions: Length: 88 ft., 2½ in.; Height: 24 ft., 11 in.; Rotor Diameter: 72 ft., 2¾ in.
Weights: Empty: 23,485 lb.; Gross: 36,400 lb.
Power Plant: Two 3,925 horsepower General Electric T64-GE-413 shaft-turbine engines
Performance: Maximum Speed: 196 M.P.H.; Service Ceiling: 21,000 ft.; Range: 257 miles
Crew: Two pilots and a crew chief with provisions for combinations of troops, stretchers, vehicles, or artillery pieces