ABOARD USS ESSEX --
Marines with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265 (Reinforced), 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, worked hand-in-hand with Sailors of Amphibious Squadron 11, to fly supplies from the USS Tippecanoe to the USS Essex, Nov. 26.
Flying CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters, Marines took turns with their Navy counterparts flying a MH-60S helicopter, hooking cargo externally to their helicopters and flying it aboard.
“Being able to move external loads is a mission all our pilots are trained to perform and they have to maintain proficiency,” said Lt. Col. Damien M. Marsh, commanding officer HMM-265 (Rein). “We have to complete external missions periodically in order to remain proficient in this perishable skill.”
To maintain proficiency, pilots can conduct external lift missions on land, but what made the vertical replenishment mission so unique was the Marine pilots had to lift an external load off a pitching deck of a moving ship. They then delivered it to another moving ship without damaging the cargo, while working with the Navy to accomplish the mission.
“We usually do it in a field or near tall trees, but rarely do we do it near the superstructure of a rocking ship where we have just a few feet of clearance between the turning rotors and the steel skin of the ship,” said Marsh. “It’s much more challenging, but it’s a great experience.”
Just attaching the cargo to the exterior of the helicopters is a challenge, because the pilots rely on a Marine or Sailor signaling them into position while they hover in place. There is also another Marine or Sailor below them to actually attach the cargo to the helicopter when it is close enough, but the challenge does not stop there.
“It is like threading a needle when you place the load in amongst other loads on the flight deck without damaging the vital supplies,” said Marsh. “In Iraq, we would fly 20-40 miles to a combat outpost and then hover between houses and power lines to get the supplies into a small courtyard; it required skills similar to the mission today. So it is very possible that our pilots could put this experience to use in combat missions in the future.”
Another distinctive aspect of the mission was Marine pilots with the 31st MEU working so closely with their Navy counterparts. As Marines would deliver a load to the flight deck of the Essex, Navy pilots would then take their turn and attach cargo to the exterior of their helicopter. This took place until the mission was complete.
“It was a Navy mission,” said Maj. Christopher Horton, the operations officer of HMM 265 (Rein), 31st MEU. “So being able to work with the Navy and have the opportunity to train at the same time as we were doing vertical replenishment was a big deal for us.”
Marsh went on to say that while the Navy allowed the Marines to train with them during the vertical replenishment mission, the Marines of HMM 265 (Rein) are planning to give the Navy an opportunity to train with them during some of the missions they will conduct in the future.
The elements of the MEU aboard the Essex are currently participating in theater security operations at sea.. The 31st MEU is the only continuously forward-deployed MEU and remains the nation’s force in readiness in the Asia-Pacific region.