USS ESSEX, At Sea, (Feb. 26, 2009) – --
A CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter soars 500 ft. in the sky. Coasting through the air, the bird makes its way toward a landing zone. However, this time the zone is small, moving and transporting about 2,300 service members. The aircraft is preparing to come aboard the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) cruising through the South China Sea.
“There is an increased amount of difficulty when flying onto a ship,” said Capt. Dorian Crocker, the flight line officer in charge with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262 (Reinforced), 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. “We have a smaller area to deal with, and safety is always a big factor.”
According to Capt. Brian M. Olmstead, operations officer for HMM 262 (REIN), landing on a smaller area means more service members must complete their tasks in a tighter environment, which adds more obstacles of which pilots must be aware. When on a land-based flight line, there is more work space for everyone to complete their missions, which allows the pilots to focus more on their specific tasks and less on where the Marines and sailors around them are.
On land Marines usually work only with other Marines, but aboard ship Marine aviators work closely with their Navy counterparts.
Olmstead, a Horseheads, N.Y. native, said the two services go to school together and learn the same way. Despite differences in the services’ rules and procedures, both sides are able to work together and complete the mission at hand.
According to Crocker, aviation assets on ship play a vital role in fulfilling mission requirements for the execution of all flight tasks associated with operations from air, ground and sea.
“It’s important to keep everyone qualified and comfortable with their jobs,” said Crocker. The 10-year veteran added that an advantage of operating from sea is that it allows the Marines to qualify for deck landings, which they are unable to do on land.
Another important aspect when conducting aviation operations from ship is that certain variables are significantly different from land, but also gives Marines the opportunity to gain confidence in different areas of their jobs.
“Some of the (missions) we (execute) are difficult (to perform on land), and being out at sea only complicates the mission more,” Olmstead said.
The CH-46E pilot referred to his first “fastrope” experience, which occurred recently during the ship’s voyage back to Okinawa, Japan.
“Usually you just hover over your target, but when you’re on ship you have to stay over your target while moving at the same rate as the ship,” he said. “You can’t simulate that on land.”
Pilots are not alone when it comes to making adjustments. Mechanics may also find themselves in complicated situations.
According to Lance Cpl. Christopher Lovato, a helicopter dynamic component mechanic with HMM 262 (REIN), one of the hardest parts of performing a mechanic’s job on ship is not always having optimal equipment at hand.
“We work on a large amount of parts and need a lot of tools to maintain the birds,” he said. “As Marines we have to make due with what we have.”
Olmstead echoed the lance corporal by saying “Marines have adapted in every environment they have found themselves in, and I truly believe we do the most with the least.”
For some aviators, the ship experience gives them the opportunity to build stronger relations within their squadrons.
“(In Yuma, Ariz.) we support multiple squadrons,” said Staff Sgt. Howard Lantis, a non-destructive inspection technician with the Essex Amphibious Ready Group. “When we get attached to the ship we only work with one squadron, which allows us to build better working relationships.”
Throughout its existence the Marine Corps has been known as a first-in wave and is always prepared to be called upon. Deploying aviation assets from the sea is one of the Corps’ many facets that have helped establish it as the nation’s force in readiness.
“What we do here is exactly what we are supposed to do as Marines,” Crocker said. “We are supposed to be ready at a moment’s notice and having the capability of flying on (and off) ship reinforces that (concept).”