ABOARD USS BOXER (LHD4) -- The Marines of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-165 (Reinforced), the air combat element for the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), fresh from a combat deployment in the Anbar Province of Iraq, are back aboard the Boxer and on their way home.
Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 165 (Rein) flew in excess of 5,000 hours in direct support of the 15th MEU as well as Multi-National Forces West (MNF-W). While operating within the Al Anbar Province, the Squadron’s helicopters and Harrier jets operated from Al Asad and Camp Korean Village providing assault support, reconnaissance, and Close Air Support (CAS) as far west as the Syrian and Jordanian borders all the way east to Baghdad.
This does not mean they are taking it easy and just riding the ship in, however, as evidenced by the sound of rotor blades and jet engines constantly running and flights coming on and off the ship.
According to Capt. Santiago Miramontes, an AH-1W Super Cobra pilot with HMM-165 (Rein), the Marines are spending time getting reacquainted with working in a ship environment.
From late November through March, all operations were conducted over land which is quite different from operating from a ship, he explained. Operating from the deck of a ship is a valuable talent that needs to be maintained if a squadron is going to be effective, Miramontes said.
“It’s such a perishable skill. When we were in Iraq, we conducted a specific missions that catered to the desert and urban type environment. As a MEU we have to be able to do many types of other missions and we’re working to preserve that,” said Miramontes.
While all of HMM-165’s pilots can safely land proficiently on a ship’s flight deck, the main focus is taking off and landing under variable conditions such as with passengers, ordnance or different weather conditions, according to Miramontes.
For instance, the difference between flying a helicopter loaded with ordnance and one not loaded is like the difference between driving a tractor-trailer and a sports car, explained Miramontes.
“What we’re looking for is getting our proficiency on the ship to the point that we can not only [land] safely but also carry on other missions,” he said.
The fixed wing aircraft aboard the Boxer are getting some training in as well, explained Capt Michael Anderson, an AV-8B Harrier pilot with HMM-165 (Rein).
Since it has been five months since the last time the squadron has operated from a ship, the pilots have been focusing mostly on their carrier qualifications.
Although the Harrier is capable of taking off on a short runway and land vertically, landing on a flight deck like the Boxer’s takes a fair amount of skill and requires regular practice to stay qualified. According to Anderson, what makes landing a challenge is the limited space provided.
With less than 850 feet long and 106 feet in width to work with to land, having to share that space with other aircraft only adds to the challenge.
“The first issue that we have to satisfy is currency [of qualifications], then proficiency. Seeing as it’s been five months since we’ve worked in a ship environment, we’re just practicing our landings on a boat,” said Anderson.
Along with landing qualifications, the squadron has been dropping practice ordnance into the ocean. What this basically amounts to is dropping inert 25lb bombs upwards to inert 500lb bombs at a predesignated spot in the ocean as a simulation for dropping ordnance on a live target.
“We basically get clearance through higher, they’ll figure out where all the ships are and where we can drop the bombs. We’ll fly our typical pattern and refreshed doing that type of training. There’s nothing to blow up and we’re essentially just dropping into the ocean. It’s the mechanics of [the training],” said Anderson.
Though flight operations are conducted every few days out of the week may seem like a lot of flying, the pilots with HMM-165 (Rein) would fly way more if given the opportunity.
“If we had it our way, we’d fly six days a week. The ship is a very challenging and unforgiving environment, the less you fly the more dangerous you make it,” said Anderson, a Tower, Minn., native.
The 15th MEU (SOC), part of Amphibious Ready Groupl 5, is currently aboard the USS Boxer (LHD4), USS Dubuque (LPD8) and USS Comstock (LSD45).