HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
The powerful blades of a CH-53E Super Stallion with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 466 transformed the cool morning breeze into a powerful wind as it prepared to take to the skies over Helmand province on a dark, early spring morning, April 2.
The Camp Bastion flightline was a beehive of activity underneath bright flood lights and fading stars as Marines performed preflight checks and aircraft started spinning up and taking off.
Two crews of HMH-466 readied their Super Stallions for a training exercise with Marines of the Georgian Liaison Team and a platoon of their counterparts with the 31st Light Infantry Battalion, Republic of Georgia.
“We supported the 31st Georgian Light Infantry Battalion doing a mission rehearsal exercise,” said Capt. Sara Mingo, a CH-53E pilot with HMH-466. “We were doing a simulated raid. We loaded up all the Georgians on our aircraft and inserted them so they could go and secure two simulated objective areas.”
The Super Stallions inserted the Georgian soldiers and Marines of the GLT at the training site as the sun sat just above the horizon, leaving behind a swirling cloud of dirt and rocks as they took off. For the platoon of Georgian soldiers, this was their first time conducting a training mission with a helicopter.
“We have been preparing for this for a while,” said SSgt. Canon Richard, an infantry advisor with the GLT. “We sat down with the Georgians for countless hours planning on exactly how we want to execute this mission. For the last couple of days we’ve actually been going to the flightline and getting on and off birds, practicing with these guys.”
Richard explained the hours of practice were need because the Georgians soldiers had never conducted helicopter operations.
“Today, actually getting on a bird, flying out here, landing and executing a practice run of what our plan is for the future is a very big deal for us. For the Georgians, it’s a very big step, and we’re very proud of these guys for what they’ve done.”
For a training mission like this, a lot of planning and coordination with different moving parts was required in order for it to be a success.
“First things first, we have to make sure the aircraft know exactly where we are,” said Sgt. Christian Hatch, a team chief with Fire Power Control Team 4, attached to the GLT. “When the aircraft gets to a certain point, my corporal and I will throw smoke into the landing zone so they know exactly where they’re going to be landing. Other than that, our purpose is to make sure the LZ is big enough to support both aircraft. I confirm with them, let them know the directions of the wind, confirm with them that the LZ has been swept for improvised explosive devices, and ensure that the aircraft can get down and back up safely without risk to the crew or ourselves in the process.”
Though the training exercise only lasted a couple of hours, the mission for HMH-466 didn't end when they safely dropped off the Georgian soldiers and the GLT back at the Bastion flightline. The Super Stallions fueled up, picked up an intelligence officer and took off once more, this time for a different type of mission.
“We did aerial reconnaissance today,” said 1st Lt. John Moore, intelligence officer and aerial observer with HMH-466. “We coordinate with other units who give us areas of interest, and then we go out and try to see the population’s reaction.”
The intelligence community’s contribution to the mission consists of taking photos of the patrolled areas and writing notes to take back to the units who requested the information.
“Essentially, we were patrolling different types of bazaars,” said Mingo. “We’re just looking to see if there was any sort of narcotic trafficking, any type of weapons they may be staging in that location, just looking for any kind of activity.”
After the completion of their aerial reconnaissance, the crews turned their aircraft around and flew toward Camp Bastion. As the crews of the Super Stallions steadily lowered the aircraft to meet its shadow cast by the late morning sun, the still busy flightline welcomed them back from another mission complete. Day or night, HMH-466 is always ready and able to support their fellow Marines and coalition partners to accomplish the mission.