HMM-774, The Eyes in the Sky for AMPHIB – SPS 12
US Marine Corps, November 10, 2011 - USS OAK HILL, At Sea by Cpl. Josh Pettway - Hundreds of miles in the air, across vast distances over the sea, one small, a close-knit group of Marines flies knowing that the mission success of other service members weighs heavily on their shoulders.
Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 774 (HMM-774) has found its way aboard the USS Oak Hill (LSD 51) in support of Amphibious Southern Partnership Station 2012 (AMPHIB SPS-12). As part of AMPHIB SPS-12, OAK HILL is supporting a joint, interagency, mission where Marines, Sailors, soldiers, airmen and coast guardsmen conduct theater security cooperation. Additional missions include humanitarian civic assistance and Subject Matter Expert Exchanges (SMEEs) between the U.S., partner nation militaries and public security forces in South and Central America.
“This is the first time [the Oak Hill] has had an aircraft like ours onboard for more than a few nights,” said Sgt. Nathan Thomas, avionics quality assurance representative with HMM-774. “I’ve been on [larger vessels], but this experience is completely different. Being onboard takes a lot of the stress of flying away because there are fewer people to watch out for.”
OAK HILL is operating with a specially tailored package of forces and as a proof of concept deployer, but many of the missions are not new for this team of Marines.
“We’ve done a few exercises to prepare ourselves for the current mission,” Staff Sgt. Paul Wood, a CH-46 crew chief. “One of the locations we’ve taken the Marines to is isolated and difficult to access via boat and we’ve established a pretty good reputation at getting them there.”
Medium Helicopter Squadron 774 has successfully completed many missions during AMPHIB-SPS 12, including airlifting 20 members of the Panamanian Public Security Forces to the Oak Hill to strengthen ties with the U.S.; communicating with Panamanian forces regarding flight capabilities and training alongside the Coast Guard to test interoperability for various air and sea missions.
Operating jointly has proved to be an interesting challenge, but the Blue Green team is learning from one another. “Training-wise, we had to get on the same page as the Navy because both branches have different tactical approaches concerning aircraft operations,” said Sgt. Joel Farren, crew chief.
Before the CH-46 Sea Knight was ready to go to sea, the ship’s crew trained extensively and qualified to embark the two CH-46s for the duration of AMPHIB-SPS 12. Currently, the Oak Hill has two Sea Knights aboard the flight deck, which normally is suited for one aircraft for a short period; however, both are employed when transferring equipment and personnel in order to optimize their capabilities and minimize mission duration.
“We can get a few hundred people to their destination in just a few hours depending on the distance we’re flying,” Wood said. “Generally, we’ll cruise between 110 and 120 knots. We carry things internally and externally and sometimes we sacrifice fuel to do so. A lot of times it is unnecessary to carry a full tank of gas, so if we can complete something in an hour to an hour and a half we won’t carry a full tank.” Carrying less fuel allows for greater lift capacity.
According to Wood, landing on the Oak Hill flight deck poses challenges due to the narrow space, however, because of the professionalism of these Marines and Sailors there has been no issues.
The Sea Knight is a 40+ year-old airframe but has been improved upon with each passing year.
“It’s a good ride and we can carry a pretty heavy load underneath if we need to,” Thomas said. “The Navy and Marine Corps are always going to have different operating methods, but safety is a number one concern for Sailors and Marines. There is a lot of relearning, but the crew here is a small close-knit group like ours. A lot of the Navy onboard come from different vessels than us, nonetheless, we came together to develop the standard of procedures for this mission. There are a lot of lessons and relationships that we had to forge for this mission, so even though we have had to learn some things over again, we’ve got a lot of experience to back us up.”
The effectiveness of the aviation combat element of the SPMAGTF directly impacts the overall success of AMPHIB-SPS 12 and the service members involved. This makes the HMM-774 vital to mission accomplishment.
“We could definitely deploy with two aircraft and a small maintenance packup,” Wood said. “The success of the SPMAGTF just proves that you can take small sections of each element and still complete the mission at hand just as effectively.”
Boeing-Vertol CH-46D 153980 ( US Marine Corps )
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HMM-774 Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 774 US Marine Corps