CAMP AL TAQADDUM, Iraq -- Darkness consumes the Iraqi landscape as creatures, loud and fierce, ascend into the starlit sky. These flying warhorses sally forth amid the dangers of insurgent forces in order to support the operations of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
They are the aircraft of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 263, the Aviation Combat Element of the 24th MEU. Exploiting their technological advantage and their ability to conduct missions beyond the twilight hours, they diminish the risk of enemy confrontation during their operations.
“They can’t shoot what they can’t see,” said Capt. Adam Gutshall, 33, a native of Shippensburg, Pa., and a CH-53E Super Stallion pilot with HMM-263.
But this dusk-till-dawn approach to aviation combat support not only gives them an optical advantage by employing night vision equipment, infrared technology, and flight data gauges to “see” during low-light conditions, it also provides a means to circumvent the brutal climatic challenges Iraq poses to the aircraft.
“The ambiance -- temperature, pressure, density -- is better at night,” adds Gutshall, referring to the lower humidity and higher oxygen levels, caused by the lower evening temperatures, that create more lift and power for the helicopters.
Yet, with all these advantages, no tactic is without its hazards, especially while operating during a time of reduced visibility.
“You can find yourself in descent without even realizing it,” said 1st Lt. Drew Morris, 26, a Plano, Texas, native and a CH-46E Sea Knight pilot with HMM-263. “There’s not as much of a visual reference [as you would have during the day]. You have to rely more on the instruments in the cockpit.”
No helicopter flies alone, a tactic aimed at providing protection from possible contingencies that might occur while conducting a mission.
“If somebody goes down, (another helicopter) can assist, and immediately call for (Tactical Recovery of Aircraft or Personnel),” added Morris. “But you have to stay aware of the lead aircraft and ‘dash-2’ because you can’t see them.”
Besides companion aircraft, one of the most important defenses the pilots of HMM-263 have are their own Marines.
“You have to keep good vision around the aircraft,” said Sgt. Jason Weischedel, 25, a Wharton, N.J., native and a CH-46E Sea Knight crew chief. “Our pilots are responsible for 10 (o’clock) and 2 (o’clock), we’re responsible for the rest. There’s always at least two Marines on the sides of the aircraft with .50 (caliber machine guns), looking back and forth for (obstacles or possible enemy fire).”
Although it is still necessary to make flights during the day, they prefer to remain under the cloak of darkness. To those who may hear but cannot see them, the birds of HMM-263 represent a nightly phantasm beneath the Iraqi moonlight. Their new nocturnal approach to the bulk of assault support requests has not only become part of everyday life, but a rewarding experience for every Marine involved in the process of transporting essential provisions to their troops.
“Out here we get to do our job,” said Weischedel. “Everybody’s stepping up and doing what they’re supposed to. It gives you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.”