ABOARD USS ESSEX, Andaman Sea --
The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit had an immediate need to obtain passports as well as helicopter parts and supplies for possible humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts to support the victims of Cyclone Nargis.
The problem was the passports were at the American embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, requiring a delivery route of over 900 nautical miles.
Fortunately, an out-of-the-box solution was offered by the 1st Marine Air Wing to deliver the passports as soon as they were completed by the embassy. The AV-8B Harriers of Marine Attack Squadron 513 would be used to make the long-range delivery to the USS Essex Amphibious Ready Group, floating off the coast of Burma.
On May 17, the VMA Marines took a short break from close air support training with the Thai military in support of Exercise Cobra Gold '08 and quickly reconfigured their aircraft with baggage pods to carry the urgently needed supplies. The Harriers worked closely with the Marines of Marine Aerial Refueler Squadron 152, another 1st MAW unit, to plan the mission.
Two Harrier pilots flew from Korat to Utaphao, Thailand, to pick up helicopter parts and the passports. The pilots then set course for the USS Essex, a circuitous route which was almost entirely over water and was complicated by the fact that they had to stay completely clear of Burmese airspace. The mission also required quick response from the USS Essex ARG to relocate to a politically suitable recovery location. VMA-513 maintenance Marines and the USS Essex Air Department recovered the AV-8Bs onboard the ship and quickly exchanged parts and documents.
The Harriers launched and rendezvoused with VMGR 152’s KC-130Js still orbiting overhead. In total, the Harrier pilots flew over 1800 nautical miles to the USS Essex and back to Thailand, refueling once on the ship and twice airborne with the help of VMGR 152’s Hercules planes. Total mission time was five hours.
“The mission was so important because if we get the opportunity to actually go into Burma and help, the necessary people will now have the tools they need for success,” said Maj. Cory Simmons, a pilot with VMA-513. “We did it in a timely fashion due to basing flexibility. We were the only ones with the legs to complete the mission. And as an added benefit, both us and the KC-130s accomplished important strategic tanker qualification training.”
For those units on the ships, the VMA’s efforts were a success as it ensured total mission readiness of MEU and USS Essex Amphibious Ready Group service members.
“The Harriers brought us the necessary parts to bring us one step closer to having all of our helicopters fully operational,” said Master Sgt. William Schmidt, a maintenance crew chief with HMM-265.
Commodore, Amphibious Squadron Eleven, Capt. Anthony Pachuta said of the mission, “This was crucial to the Navy/Marine team on being able to execute any mission inside of Burma with the requirement that all Air, LCU and LCAC crews have passports. The pilots of VMA -513 gave new meaning to the mission of COD (carrier onboard delivery) and provided if in the future we are tasked to conduct HADR mission into Burma that execution would not have been possible without them being able to fly the passports out to the ESSEX. Success is defined by small victories and this success was a small victory for the Navy/Marine team on the ESX ARG.”
The mission completed by the VMA pilots was the first MEU mission in support of Joint Task Force Caring Response. The Harriers were the only aircraft in the Pacific Theatre able to fly from Uthapao to the USS Essex ARG and deliver supplies. The mission highlights the Harrier’s flexibility and versatility.
MEU commanding officer, Col. John Mayer, said of the mission, “Considering the Burmese governments requirement for everyone to have a passport and our location off the coast of Burma, the Harriers were the only platform in the JTF that could respond quickly, from land base to ship, and over the distance necessary to support the mission. As a MEU commander, I appreciate the flexibility of Short Take off Vertical Landing aviation.”
As the MEU and the USS Essex ARG continue preparations to support Operation Caring Response, Harriers from VMA-513 stand ready to provide whatever unique support is required from an attack aircraft during humanitarian assistance operations.
"This was untraditional tasking for a Harrier squadron but it was a good mission,” said Lt. Col. Christopher J. Parkhurst, commanding officer, VMA-513. “It was great to contribute to the contingency effort while highlighting the flexibility of Short Take off Vertical Landing aviation. The MAGTF has always prided itself on its ability to accomplish tasks that no one else can, and this is just one more example of that."