Check Out This Marine CH-53K Carrying An F-35C While Refueling From A KC-130T

The new CH-53K is the most powerful helicopter in the Pentagon’s inventory and it provides a critical long-range, heavy-lift capability.

byJoseph Trevithick|
A US Marine Corps CH-53K recently carried the stripped-down hulk of an F-35C fighter from one base to another and refueled in mid-air along the way.


A U.S. Marine Corps CH-53K King Stallion helicopter with a stripped-down hulk of an F-35C slung underneath refueling in mid-air from a KC-130T Hercules tanker/transport aircraft is a window into what the service's distributed aviation operations might look like in the future.

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A Marine CH-53K with a pilot from Marine Test and Evaluation Squadron 1 (VMX-1) at the controls recently did all of this while helping move the remains of the first F-35C test jet, also known as CF-1, from one base to another on April 24. The King Stallion carried the "inoperable airframe, which was without mission and propulsion systems, outer wings, or additional equipment" from Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland to Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) Lakehurst some 160 miles to the northeast, according to a caption accompanying the picture seen at the top of this story, which was released yesterday. NAWCAD Lakehurst is situated within Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. What's left of CF-1 will be used for "future emergency recovery systems testing" at its new home in New Jersey, the Navy says.

Additional pictures the Navy has released showing the movement of CF-1 from Patuxent River to Lakehurst are seen below.


This is actually not the first time a CH-53K has carried this exact airframe slung underneath. The Marines did so as part of a demonstration of the King Stallion's load-carrying capabilities in support of "Helicopter Support Team operations" at Patuxent River in January 2023, as you can read more about here. That looked to be the first time a CH-53K, which has a maximum payload capacity of 36,000 pounds, had ever lifted any F-35 fighter variant, or parts thereof, but did not appear to also involve any mid-air refueling.

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CH-53Ks have lifted a variety of other large payloads in testing. The King Stallion's first official real-world mission also involved recovering the wreckage of a smaller MH-60S Seahawk helicopter that crashed in California in 2021. A CH-53K was sent to recover another downed Seahawk in California last year.

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Sling-loading any very large payload under a helicopter and refueling in mid-air can be complex and potentially dangerous affairs on their own. Doing so at the same time presents its own challenges. As such, the flight from Patuxent River to Lakehurst can only have provided the Marines, as well as the Navy, with useful additional insights into the King Stallion's ability to carry outsized cargoes across longer distances.

Moving damaged or otherwise inoperable aircraft, as well as armored and unarmored vehicles and other large payloads, has long been among the key missions for Marine CH-53s even before the arrival of the new King Stallion variant. However, this capability is taking on new significance with the service's new expeditionary and distributed concepts of operations, which have a heavy emphasis on island-hopping operations during a potential high-end conflict in the Pacific against China.

The CH-53K with CF-1 slung underneath seen flying over the water on its way from Patuxent River to Lakehurst on April 24. USN

As it stands now, the Marine Corps plans to buy 200 CH-53Ks to replace its existing CH-53Es. The King Stallion suffered significant delays in its development and the Corps only declared initial operational capability with the type in 2022. The service has also now pushed back the planned first operational deployment of these helicopters aboard an amphibious assault ship, with this inaugural event now not expected to come until 2026.

In the meantime, the Marines, in cooperation with the Navy, continue to demonstrate the impressive capabilities the new CH-53K brings to the table through tests, demonstrations, and other operations like the recent delivery of CF-1 to Lakehurst.

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