U.S., U.K. helo forces collaborate in an Afghanistan of their own

27 May 2011 | Sgt. Marcy Sanchez

The summer months of El Centro, Calif., consist of no rain, scorching sun and temperatures reaching 120 degrees and above - certainly a runner-up to the harsh environment of Afghanistan.

Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369 and the United Kingdom’s 661 Squadron, 1st Regiment, Army Air Corps are in Southern California for a two-day joint pre-deployment exercise to simulate  operations in Afghanistan, May 25.

The Colorado desert conditions ensure any military unit training in the dry, below sea level environment will get a taste of what to expect in the Afghanistan desert.

“It’s hot,” said Maj. Simon Gough, commanding officer of 661 Squadron. “We can’t do this kind of high-temperature training in Europe.”

The U.K. squadron is also testing out the newly upgraded Lynx Mk9A helicopter, Gough said. The hot weather in the environment pushes the Lynx helicopter to its limits giving crew members experience prior to Afghanistan.

Although simulating conditions is imperative to the training, the two squadrons also focused on familiarization with one another for mission accomplishment.

“This is a way to work together on procedures before we go to Afghanistan. There are ways that they employ their weapons systems that we’re not familiar with. This gives us a heads up,” said Capt. Kevin J. Lehman, a pilot training officer with HMLA 369.

Part of that familiarization included multiple missions with AH-1W Cobra, UH-1Y Huey and Lynx helicopters, to simulate convoy patrols, ground combat assistance and escorts.

“We’re trying to simulate what we do in operations with coalition forces in Helmand province,” Gough said. “This gives our guys some exposure to joint training - something a little out of the ordinary.”

Although the two squadrons have never worked together, this is the third time 661 Squadron has been to El Centro to train. The squadron will return to their home base of Gutersloh, Germany, after completing their seven-week deployment here.

“It makes sense that we train together when we’re doing joint operations in Afghanistan,” Gough said. “It’s a really good experience for us, not one that many crews have had an opportunity to do before.”

Whether it’s setting up British aircraft to rapidly help Marines or vice versa, everybody wins, Lehman said.

HMLA 369 is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in late 2011.