The Luftwaffe’s venerable Sikorsky CH-53 fleet has gone through a number of upgrades in recent years, ensuring the continuation of its service with the German Armed Forces. Hartmut Feldmann writes.
Following the structural reform of the Bundeswehr (German Armed Forces) in 2011, the nation’s Luftwaffe (German Air Force) became the sole organisation to carry out the armed forces’ tactical airlift role. When examining the operational capabilities of the available transport helicopter types, a decision was made to transfer the Bell UH-1Ds and the new NH90 light transport helicopters operated by the Luftwaffe to the Heeresflieger (German Army Aviation Corps). In return, command and control of the aged but reliable Heeresflieger Sikorsky CH-53s was transferred to the Luftwaffe by 2013. In 1968, the Bundeswehr received 110 CH-53Gs, a total of which 78 survive, with four variants currently operated – the CH-53 G, GS, GE and GA, all of which are fitted with different equipment and features (more on which later). Until its transfer to the Luftwaffe the CH-53 MTHs (Mittlerer Transport-hubschrauber) served several different regiments of the Heeresflieger.
Following the Bundeswehr’s in-theatre experiences of the Afghanistan conflict, 20 CH-53Gs underwent an upgrade carried out by Eurocopter. Designated CH-53GS, the aircraft received Kevlar armour-plating, new and more powerful engines with new titanium rotor blades, a GPS navigation system, helmet-mounted night-vision goggles, radar and laser warning receivers (Missile Launch Detection System), chaff and flare dispensers and, optionally, two external fuel tanks carrying an additional c.5,000 litres of fuel. In addition to the automated self-defence systems the GS variant (the S stands for ‘Special’) can be fitted with three M3M 12.7mm calibre machine guns, two in the side doors and one mounted on the rear loading ramp.
Six aircraft urgently required an upgrade as they were to operate under the command and control of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The upgrade for these CH-53Gs was limited to an updated communication and navigation system, inclusion of the self-defence equipment from the GS variant, dust filters for the engines and two external fuel tanks. These upgraded aircraft were designated CH-53GE (the E for ‘Enhanced’).
Amongst other missions, the Luftwaffe’s 26 CH-53GE/GSs are tasked to operate in the Combat Search And Rescue (CSAR) role. For this role the flight deck of the MTH can house a mission-orientated work station incorporating a Personnel Locator System. The CH-53GS and -GE variants are equipped with satellite communication systems as well as a forward-looking infrared sighting system.
From 2010 onwards, Eurocopter updated and/or is updating 40 CH-53Gs to the ‘Advanced’ CH-53GA variant. The aircraft have received an extensive upgrade featuring what is essentially a new flight deck where aircraft and avionics controls are secured via a new digital ‘glass’ cockpit of five MFDs and incorporating the EADS-made ‘Hellas’ obstacle warning system, a FLIR night and bad weather sighting system, and an autopilot for automatic take-off, landing and hovering. Satellite communication and an additional internal fuel tank have also been added and the aircraft have been completely rewired, which will serve to extend the service life of the airframe from 6,000 to 10,000 flying hours to keep the aircraft operational until the year 2030.
Holzdorf Air Base
In contrast to most other air bases in Germany, Holzdorf’s origins do not date back to the Second World War. In 1968 experts of the NVA of the former German Democratic Republic assessed the suitability of woodland near the village of Holzdorf to construct a dispersal airfield. In 1977, however, the NVA decided to work up the airfield 30 kms to the North-East of Torgau, which subsequently became a MiG-21 fighter base. In 1982, Flugplatz Holzdorf became home of the NVA’s Jagdfliegergeschwader 1 “Fritz Schmenkel”. It was based at Cottbus AB before and transferred its 43 MiG-21SPS fighters and eight MiG-21US trainer aircraft, with the transfer complete by the end of 1982.
After Germany’s reunification in 1990 and after extensive clean-up operations, Holzdorf AB came under the command of the Wunstorf-based Lufttransportgeschwader 62. 1996 saw the transfer of the 2. Staffel of the Lufttransportgruppe LTG 62 (group of the Air Transport Wing 62) from Ahlhorn AB to Holzdorf AB. The squadron operated about 20 Bell UH-1D light transport helicopters.
In 2002, the Bundeswehr decided to transfer its so-called ‘CSAR-Kerngruppe’ (core group for Combat Search And Rescue) of the Luftwaffe from Diepholz AB in Northern Germany to Holzdorf AB in East Germany. These Special Forces were founded in 1996 and operated UH-1Ds in missions to rescue downed aircrews behind enemy lines.
Between 2004 and 2010 several hangars were built for the new NH90 transport helicopter, as well as a NH90 flight simulator building. 2011 saw the transfer of the Bell UH-1Ds as well as the newly introduced NH90 from the Luftwaffe to the Heeresflieger and the transfer of the Heeresflieger’s MTHs to the Luftwaffe’s sole Helicopter Wing, the Hubschraubergeschwader 64 (HSG 64).
At the beginning of 2013 the new Lufttransportgruppe of the HSG 64 was commissioned at Holzdorf AB. The helicopter group fulfils the advanced training role for MTH pilots. The Luftwaffe aims to operate about 20 CH-53s at Holzdorf AB as HSG 64’s third squadron. The parent unit, HSG 64, is based at Laupheim AB in the Alps region and operates two further squadrons of the CH-53.
With thanks to the unit’s ECM Officer and Press Officer, StFW Hubmann, for their kind assistance.