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.


The beast is hovering – perfectly camouflaged, old-fashioned but ready to get into the fight! © Hartmut Feldmann


This view reveals the CH-53GA’s self-defence suite from another angle. Obvious are the large housing and the noticeable antennas next to the tail rotor driveshaft. The housing takes up the SatCom antenna, and the two blade antennas are for HF and UHF radio. The vesicular housing at the ramp’s wind deflector is part of the ALR-400 radar warning receiver system, and the one underneath the code contributes to the AN/AAR-60 missile launch detector. The one above the code can hold the BAE-manufactured ACDS chaff/flare dispenser, and the sensor box on top of the sponson belongs to the ALTAS 2QB laser warning receiver produced by Airbus Defence & Space. Note the massive electrically driven tail skid which normally is attached to the boom in flight. © Hartmut Feldmann


A small lake close to Holzdorf Air Base is used by the German air crews to train in the procedures to fill a ‘goose’. After the absorption of about 5,000 litres of water from the lake, the aircraft carried on its training mission towards a military training ground which is situated next to the air base as well. In this area, the crew opened up the ‘goose’ over a simulated fire source and continued the training syllabus with a further water absorption. © Hartmut Feldmann

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.


The different colour schemes may confuse – 84+87 is a CH-53GA, indeed, and the familiar painted CH-53 in the background is a CH-53GE, but there are CH-53GAs sporting all-over ‘NATO Olive Drab’. © Hartmut Feldmann


84+87 sports some new features of a German CH-53 besides its camouflage of RAL 7021 (Schwarzgrau), RAL 6003 (Olivgruen) and Federal Standard 34079 (Forrest Green). The familiar HEER lettering at the sponson is self-evidently gone. The Luftwaffe, however, decided to leave lettering apart from a very small one at the tail rotor housing. HSG 64’s Wing Badge is of the low visibility style and only worn on the aircraft’s starboard side. © Hartmut Feldmann


During the water absorption procedure, both pilot and co-pilot of the helicopter get warning notices from flight mechanics on board via the aircraft’s interphone system. One of the mechanics controls the starboard side underneath the helicopter whereas another crew member sits on the ramp in the tail controlling the port side underneath. © Hartmut Feldmann

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.


The downwash of a CH-53 is quite impressive, seen here over a lake next to Holzdorf Air Base. 84+58 is one of 40 CH-53GAs which have received the life-extension programme. 84+58 is one of several others not being painted in the camouflage scheme of dark grey and two shades of green. Instead, the aircraft is left with its familiar all-over colour scheme of olive drab in order to operate it in treeless areas. © Hartmut Feldmann


When taking up water from a lake with the help of a big ‘goose’ nicknamed ‘Smokey’, the pilot and co-pilot train the absorption with and without visual help by the two flight mechanics on board. © Hartmut Feldmann


Would have been a nice shower for the cameraman, wouldn’t it?! Note the box-like self-defence locator system at the aircraft’s nose and the box of the chaff/flare dispenser in the aft section. © Hartmut Feldmann

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.