INDIAN OCEAN aboard USS GREEN BAY (LPD-20) --
For more than 50 years, Marines and sailors with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 163 (Reinforced) have proven they can operate in the far reaches of the globe, from the jungles of Vietnam to the mountains of Afghanistan.
Currently, HMM-163 (Rein.), sails on the world’s oceans deployed as part of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit-Boxer Amphibious Ready Group, ready to respond as part of a force in readiness. Once solely based aboard the USS Boxer (LHD-4), a detachment of Marines from the squadron has recently set up shop aboard the USS Green Bay (LPD-20) during the 2011 Western Pacific Deployment. This detachment provides increased capabilities for a MEU that can operate independently on two ships thousands of miles apart.
“We really expand the capabilities of the Marines and sailors on ship,” said Capt. Thad D. Christofer, a pilot with the squadron known as “Evil Eyes.” “For instance, we can split off as an individual ship and when we try to go ashore with [Battalion Landing Team 1/1] we can provide that rapid deployment. We also have a lot longer range than other assets here on ship. In any case we need to sprint ahead or in a CASEVAC situation we can go in and at a fast. The whole idea behind the MEU-[Marine Air-Ground Task Force] concept is that you have the ACE element embedded with the ground element so there’s a whole lot more we can do whether it’s Non-Combatant Evacuations, Humanitarian Assistance Operations, fast rope insertion or other missions organic to the MEU.”
A dedicated crew of aviation maintainers oversee and make repairs to sustain four CH-46E “Sea Knights.” This enables the detachment to operate independent from Boxer.
Each day, Marines from the squadron wash down the helicopters to rid them of corrosive salt that builds up, caused by the ocean air. Other duties include checking for foreign object debris or FOD and performing daily inspections to look for discrepancies on the aircraft. When the aircraft has been certified by maintenance control, the pilots sign for the aircraft and flight operations can commence.
“For years all the little decks [LPD’s] have had flight decks but really those were designed as lily pads,” said Lt. Col. Craig Wonson, the commanding officer of BLT 1/1, 13th MEU. “This ship is really designed to have a sustained albeit small but sustained aircraft support on it. So not only can we land helicopters on it here. Now we have a ship that’s not a big deck that can sustain an aircraft for long durations. Now you become a MAGTF. It lends to the Marine Corps nature of adaptability and versatility.”
The flight deck, hangar bay and maintenance areas aboard the USS Green Bay provide the detachment with the space necessary to keep flight operations running.
“Usually when you deploy in country you have more support from the Marine Aviation Logistics Squadrons, and more room for supplies and assets,” said Gunnery Sgt. Angel R. Montanez, senior maintenance controller and crew chief with Evil Eyes. “Here on the Green Bay you have a smaller contingent of resources and are even more limited than on Boxer. You have fewer Marines working on each aircraft and that means they need to work independently and be savvy. When Marines perform maintenance they need to do it right the first time. It’s a different environment but its business as usual.”
In spite of these limitations, the Marines use the opportunity to hone their skills and learn from each other.
“It’s a challenge working on a ship, period, but the smaller sized staff means we have more chances for NCO’s to mentor us one on one and this can help me become a better mechanic,” said Lance Cpl. Daryl S. Martin, a CH-46E helicopter mechanic with Evil Eyes. “I’m glad to be here and I wouldn’t want to be on any other ship.”
If aircrews find themselves conducting HAO’s or troop insertions in a distant land, their success will be shared by not only the pilots and crew chiefs but by the Marines and sailors who keep flight operations running as an element of the Green Bay’s own “mini MAGTF.”