KIN BLUE TRAINING AREA, Okinawa, Japan -- In complete darkness, more than 16 tons of metal hovers over the heads of five Marines. On this night, their mission is to attach loads of cargo to the bottom of the aerial workhorse known as the Super Stallion.
Marines with the Helicopter Support Team of Combat Logistics Battalion 31, and Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 (Reinforced), both with 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, conducted external lifts in low-light and dark visibility conditions here, Oct. 31.
External lifts move large cargo from one place to another via helicopter when rough terrain prevents the load from being transported by ground or when the cargo has to move from ship to shore quickly. With the 36,000 pound lift capability of the CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter, this capability provides rapid transportation for anything from M777A2 Lightweight Howitzers to a pallet of Meals Ready-to-Eat.
“An external lift is used to transport supplies, gear or just about anything via helicopter,” said 1stLt. Wesley R. Jackson, the landing support platoon commander with CLB-31, 31st MEU, and a native of Mountainburg Ark. “As the Logistics Combat Element for the 31st MEU, we have to train to be able to conduct an external lift in a real contingency.”
The Helicopter Support Team and the crew members of the CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter use detailed coordination to safely and quickly conduct the external lift process. The HST secures the landing zone while the helicopter crew chiefs and pilots fly the CH-53E into position over the payload.
Before the helicopter’s familiar beating rhythm can be heard in the distance, however, the HST prepares the load. Every strap, chain, nut and bolt is tightened and inspected before the 16.6 ton helicopter arrives. These precautions and inspections by the ground crew are even more important for night-time lifts, and attention to detail can mean the difference between mission success or a disaster.
“When you are doing an external lift in the dark, it adds challenges to what we do,” said Lance Cpl. Gregg J. Schaefer, a landing support specialist with CLB-31, 31st MEU, and a native of Barnhart, Mo. “Instead of being able to see all of your hand movements and where everything is, it is all dark blurriness.”
The Super Stallion begins the external lift process by swooping in from the side and positioning the cargo inside the blind spot below the helicopter. The crew chiefs of the CH-53E serve as the pilots’ eyes by leaning out the side windows to make corrections as the helicopter lowers into position.
As the Super Stallion comes into position, five HST Marines move into position around the cargo. Wearing protective equipment like helmets and insulated gloves, the HST uses a static wand to ground 200,000 volts of electricity surging through the hook hanging from the helicopter. Once the long, yellow, static wand grounds the hook, the HST secures the load and to the helicopter.
When the HST Marines are satisfied with the connection, they move to a safe distance and radio the helicopter to lift. The pilots ensure the Super Stallion is positioned directly above the cargo before lifting, to prevent the load from dragging, and then fly off towards the delivery destination. During external lift training, this process is repeated numerous times.
“By doing continuous external lifts, the Marines become confident and proficient in what they are doing,” said Cpl. Joshua J. Pollesch, a landing support team leader with CLB-31, 31st MEU, and a native of Kingston, Wis. “With all the dangers of the process, we have to ensure that we are precise in what we do.”
The 31st MEU is the Marine Corps’ force in readiness in the Asia-Pacific region and the only continuously forward deployed MEU.