US Air Force, December 02, 2008 - HURLBURT FIELD, Fla by 1st Lt. Lauren Johnson, 1 SOW Public Affairs - The final two CV-22s broke across the Florida horizon just in time for Thanksgiving dinner. And after a 5,300 nautical mile flight across the Atlantic ocean, they had surely worked up an appetite.
The aircraft, from the 8th Special Operations Squadron, arrived home Nov. 26 on the heels of two other CV-22s, all of which had spent the last month in Bamako, Mali supporting Exercise FLINTLOCK-09, a regularly scheduled training exercise in the Trans-Saharan region designed to build relationships and capacity and to enhance African nations' ability to patrol and control their sovereign territory.
The exercise marked an important milestone for the CV-22s as their first operational deployment.
"This is something we've been waiting for for a long time," said Maj. Jim Rowe, an 8th SOS pilot, fresh out of the cockpit from the trans-Atlantic flight. "It was one of the highlights of my military career."
The exercise included personnel from 15 countries, and the CV-22 served as a platform for multinational training. Specifically, the aircraft was used to transport Malian and Senegalese special operations forces and their leadership teams.
"We did long range, vertical lift, and dropped [teams] off at a landing zone," said Capt. Dennis Woodlief, 8th SOS pilot. "They practiced their ground movements, then we brought them back."
Lt. Col. Eric Hill, 8th SOS squadron commander, said missions like this allowed the CV-22 to take advantage of its unique capabilities as a tiltrotor aircraft.
"The tyranny of distance in the African continent is amazing," he said. "We were able to go over 500 nautical miles, infiltrate a small team for them to run their exercise, and bring them back all the way to home base without doing an air refueling stop. And we were able to do that in the span of about four hours. "
"It would take the MH-53 twice, sometimes three times as long [to do these missions]," Captain Woodlief said. "And we did it with just one aircraft."
Colonel Hill said the CV-22 is an "unprecedented capability." And with the new capability, there were also new lessons to be learned.
"We learned some lessons like we always do on different equipment we'd like to have and requirements that we'll have in the future," he said.
Many of those lessons revolve around tailoring maintenance packages for future deployments.
The 1st Special Operations Helicopter Maintenance Squadron deployed to Bamako in support of the 8th SOS. Because the exercise was held at a remote location rather than an established base, one of the maintenance challenges was self-deploying with all the parts and equipment they needed to keep the CV-22s operational for the entire exercise - and for the cumulative 10,000 nautical mile trans-Atlantic flights.
"We have a laundry list about three pages long of things we'd like to take next time," said Master Sgt. Craig Kornely, the squadron's lead production supervisor. "As we grow into the machine, we realize our needs for equipment and resources."
But despite the challenges of operating a new aircraft for the first time overseas and in an austere environment, the squadron had a perfect mission success rate during the exercise.
"We had zero maintenance cancels, zero delays, and we executed 100 percent every time," Captain Woodlief said. "I think we went above and beyond everyone's expectations."
Colonel Hill said he was extremely proud of the 8th SOS and 1st SOHMXS's accomplishments.
"There's nothing more gratifying than seeing [your squadron] take a revolutionary capability out on its first deployment, have huge mission success, meet every mission task, and most importantly bring everybody back to home base safely," he said. "I couldn't be more proud as a squadron commander."