CAMP TAQADDUM, Iraq -- The horizon turned sideways as the UH-1N Huey banked a hard right in the overcast Iraqi sky during a convoy escort mission.
On the right, inside the helicopter, hands grasped a .50 caliber heavy-machine gun. On the left, a Marine gripped a GAU-17 machine gun, a six-barrel gun that unloads 3,000 rounds per minute.
“We call this one the Fat Lady,” said Gunnery Sgt. Michael J. Mikkelson, a Huey crew chief, and a native of West Bend, Wisc., referring to the GAU mounted on the Huey. “When she sings, it’s all over for the enemy.”
The machine gun spits out enough rounds to write a name in cursive, according to the crew chiefs of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 775, Marine Aircraft Group 16 an activated reserve unit nicknamed the Coyotes.
HMLA-775, comprised of both Hueys and AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters, has conducted escort missions and close air support for infantry units on the ground in Fallujah and Ar Ramadi while in Iraq.
Since touching down in Iraq earlier this year, the unit has tacked on combat flight hours nearly every day in their Cobras and Hueys.
Hundreds of feet below, Marine ground forces have witnessed the squadron’s aerial skills.
Cpl. Jarod K. Stevens, the assistant data chief for I Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group had a front-row seat on one occasion.
While guarding a tactical checkpoint on the night of April 6, he recounted, the checkpoint received enemy indirect and direct fire. CAS was called immediately.
“For the rest of the night, we had support, and everything was quiet,” the resident of Frisco, Texas, said. “All of the enemy hid once they showed up, and didn't cause any more problems. (Air support) kept the enemy from attacking us any more that night.”
During peacetime, HMLA-775 is split, one half residing at Camp Pendleton, Calif., the other at Johnstown, Pa. It is only during wartime that the unit operates as a whole.
“What’s unique about our squadron is that you probably couldn’t find a pilot here without at least ten years of experience,” said Maj. Rob Russell, a Huey pilot, from Oceanside, Calif.
According to Russell, most of the squadron’s pilots spent their first ten years in the Corps on active duty before entering the reserves. However, he did admit the average age of pilots in the squadron is older than an active duty unit.
“The younger guys might be a little more quicker on the reaction,” said the activated American Eagle Airlines pilot, “but we have the experience and the ability to know what reaction to use in mostly all situations in the air.”
We’ve got Marines out here in their late 40’s running around and flying combat missions.”
Even as reserves, Russell added, the pilots have to maintain the same flight requirements as the active duty.
“I couldn’t think of a better group of individuals to go into combat with,” said Maj. Erik Douglas, a Cobra pilot from Oceanside.
Garnering flight hours is not a problem for Douglas, a father of two. His civilian career as a biology teacher at Oceanside High School affords him the summers off, which offers him plenty of flight time.
He said he had not previously told his students he is a Cobra pilot, but is willing to bet they know now after he has trekked across the world to support Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The former Huey pilot, who was deployed to Operation United Shield in Somalia in 1994, said Cobra helicopters, sometimes referred to as Snakes, are specifically designed to attack. By using the Cobra’s pinpoint accuracy, pilots are able to reach out and touch enemy forces from miles away.
“The possibilities are unlimited on the types of missions we can do,” said Mikkelson, who has completed nearly 3,000 hours of flying time during his 18-year career. “You name it, we probably can do it,” he said while inside the Huey’s cabin on the flight line waiting for a mission.
The Huey - a utility helicopter by nature - has the ability to attack enemy troops, deliver supplies and evacuate casualties. The Huey also has a 360-degree area of fire to take down enemy forces.
“The two helicopters complement one another,” said Douglas, a 1988 University of Maryland graduate. “We’ve been able to fully use their capabilities out here.”
Inside the ready room, the pilots watch a few movies to pass the time between missions.
Once an order is given, within minutes the pilots are seated in their helicopters taxing off the runway into the skies of Iraq supporting a ground element.
“That’s the whole reason why we exist - to support the Marines on the ground,” Douglas said.
It’s a sentiment shared by Marines on the ground.
"The sound of the Snakes above us gave us confidence when we fought in Fallujah,” said Capt. D.A. Zembiec, Echo Company commanding officer, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. “Marines would shout with pride, when the Cobras rocketed and strafed the insurgents.”