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An AV-8B Harrier jet with Marine Attack Squadron 211, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, takes off from the flight deck of the USS Essex (LHD 2) during flight deck operations, February 1. The 31st MEU provides an ideal example of how the Marine Corps trains and operates as a Marine Air-Ground Task Force.

Photo by Lance Cpl. Garry J. Welch

Essex Marines, Sailors preserve expeditionary capability

2 Feb 2011 | Cpl. Michael A. Bianco

An AV-8B Harrier jet pilot does his preflight checks and prepares for take-off. However, today the flight is launched from an amphibious assault ship rigorously traveling through the open waters of the Pacific Ocean. As the pilot finishes his checks, he looks up to see someone different than the usual Marine ground crew. The person giving hand and arm signals and wearing a yellow jersey is a Sailor.

Whether it’s take-off or landing, helicopter or jet, Navy- Marine Corps cooperation aboard the flight deck of the USS Essex (LHD 2) is essential for completing major missions of a maritime contingency force.

“Coordination and integration is the key to any possible mission accomplishment,” said Col. Andrew MacMannis, 31st MEU commanding officer. “Neither the Navy or Marine Corps can efficiently or effectively accomplish their mission without the other, and they cannot accomplish that mission without practicing the integration of responsibilities.”

Marines and Sailors of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and Essex Amphibious Ready Group, combine their skills and expertise to ensure mission accomplishment. Team work is considered paramount, especially on the flight deck. It can be one of the most dangerous areas of the ship because even the slightest miscalculation or miscommunication can result in a disaster.

On the flight deck, Marines and Sailors from the 31st MEU’s Aviation Combat Element, comprised of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262 (reinforced) and Marine Attack Squadron 211, the Essex’s Combat Cargo Company and the ship’s air department work alongside each other daily.

The ACE includes pilots, crew chiefs, mechanics and avionic technicians responsible for CH-46E Sea Knight, CH-53E Super Stallion, UH-1N Huey and AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters, as well as AV-8B Harrier jets.

“The flight deck crewmembers help keep the process running smoothly during fly-ons and take-offs,” said Capt. Eric Biskner, a Harrier pilot with VMA-211. “The Sailors of the flight crew are always flexible and accommodating.”

Combat Cargo is a mixture of service members, from the MEU and ARG, who have many logistical responsibilities throughout the ship. On the flight deck, they are the liaison between the ship and the MEU and are responsible for all personnel and cargo that transit to and from the ship, according to Gunnery Sgt. John Janney, the Essex flight deck combat cargo assistant.

The ship’s airmen wear one of five colored jerseys to identify their role on the flight deck. Yellow is worn by flight deck handlers, who are responsible for directing pilots during take-offs, landings and while taxiing on deck. Chock-and-chain men wear blue and remove the chocks and chains from the aircraft right before take-off and secure aircraft to the deck after landing. Sailors responsible for ordnance and crash and salvage wear red. Sailors tasked with maintenance wear green and those responsible for providing fuel wear purple.

According to Seaman Gerardo Valencia, an aviation boatswain’s mate aboard Essex, working with Marines is a great opportunity to put his skills to the test.

“Our job would be a lot different without Marines,” Valencia said. “We gain more responsibilities when assisting the air crews and it gives us a lot of valuable experience we can use in the future.”

From operational planning on ship and shore, to the performance of strategic missions in air, land and sea, the Marines and Sailors with the 31st MEU and ARG combine their expertise in order to successfully complete Blue/Green training and prepare themselves for future operations in the Asia-Pacific region.

"The mission of Essex is to embark Marines, ensure that they arrive at their objective on time, and support them while they are conducting their missions." said Capt. David Fluker, Essex commanding officer. "It is critical for the Blue-Green team to function seamlessly. Because of the frequency with which Essex and the 31st MEU operate together, they have become the finest team that our expeditionary force has to offer. Whether conducting humanitarian assistance or combat operations against the enemy, the teamwork has paid off."

31st Marine Expeditionary Unit