CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo -- As the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) continues its mission in Kosovo, it is clear that the function of the Aviation Combat Element plays a vital role in ensuring its success. Tasked with numerous responsibilities, the ACE demonstrates enormous versatility in the daily operations of a forward-deployed Marine Air-Ground Task Force.
Throughout the 24th MEU (SOC)'s participation in Operation Dynamic Response 2002, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 263 has been a central component in a variety of assignments, ranging from troop lifts to aerial observation. With a number of each type of helicopter available, the ACE can support just about any task the MEU must perform in Kosovo.
"We support the MEU with rides, re-supplies, visual and if necessary, armored reconnaissance," said Maj. Jon Jacobs, operations officer and CH-46 Sea Knight pilot, from Gainesville, Fla. "We are constantly searching the borders making sure there is no illegal border crossing."
If some illegal activity is spotted, the pilots can coordinate with Battalion Landing Team members about specific positions and possible detaining measures.
One highlight of the ACE's work is the practice of a routine casualty evacuation aircraft which visits each camp that the MEU is occupying while in Kosovo. Every day, a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter leaves Camp Bondsteel and touches down at Prizren, Casablanca, the Administration and Logistics Center (ALOC) in Dragas, Globohill, and Camp Scorpion in case there are any injured personnel that need to be evacuated for medical treatment.
"If we have guys up in the mountains that have hypothermia, broken legs, or any other injury that needs medical attention, we can take them to the Prizren medical facility faster than any vehicle can get to them," said Capt. Douglass Thumm, CH-46 pilot, from Jacksonville, N.C.
"The corpsmen we have with the ACE are trained to be able to give IVs or attend to the injury inside the aircraft enroute to the hospital," said Thumm.
Although there have been no injuries that require the casualty evacuation flight thus far, the ACE marines continue to train for it.
"We have done one 'cherry picker' with Golf Co.," said Lance Cpl. Joseph Willis, CH-46 crew chief, from Bogalusa, La. "Our main job is to assist the pilots with the landing zone, but we also help in getting the victim on board and fastened securely."
Once the casualty evacuation route is finished, the pilots and crew ground the aircraft at Camp Aloc for the night where they are refueled. They return to the ACE headquarters at Camp Bondsteel the next day after being relieved by a new aircraft and fresh crew.
In addition, the ACE has participated in Helicopter Support Team (HST) training in which they fasten any type of cargo to the aircraft and lift it to another location. This can be anything from a water bull to underground piping.
All of these feats have been accomplished during spells of adverse weather conditions and over mountainous terrain, underlining the ACE's dedication and versatility.
"We monitor the visibility and cloud ceiling very carefully, especially in these mountains," said Jacobs. "But we can fly in the rain to accomplish our mission."