CAMP AL TAQADDUM, Iraq -- The Marine Corps has developed many time-honored traditions since its establishment in 1775, one of which is the personalization of its aircraft. To many, these flying machines may seem to be nothing more than a mechanical marvel with the ability to transport personnel and supplies to various locations within an area of operation. Yet, to the Marines of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, it's a representation of the close working relationship they share with their helicopters.
"When (Marines) personalize an aircraft, it gives them a sense of involvement in everything the aircraft does," said Lt. Col. Roy Osborn, 42, a CH-46E Sea Knight pilot from Groveton, Texas, and commanding officer of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 263 (Reinforced), the aviation combat element of the 24th MEU.
However, before the painting can take place, the first step is to give their helo a name.
"Marines (usually) name their aircraft something that relates to their own lives," said Sgt. Joel Giulano, 29, a CH-46E Sea Knight crew chief with HMM-263, from Gloversville, N.Y. "Mine is from a Grateful Dead song - "Eazywind" -- about a guy working hard at his job, (struggling with) his boss and wife. It was the epitomy of everything I felt."
Next, there's the decision of whether to have their personal design done professionally, or by their own hands. For the more artistically inclined Marines, this is their opportunity to give something of themselves to their aircraft.
"It means more when you paint it yourself," said Cpl. Daniel Yorba, 23, a Juneau, Alaska, native and CH-46E Sea Knight crew chief with HMM-263. "When (the armor is) airbrushed (by professionals), it just doesn't have as much soul."
But having the initiative to apply a personal design is no easy task. It's a time-consuming process that requires patience, talent, and a solid technique.
"First," said Yorba, one of the MEU's artists, "cut a piece of metal and bend the edges over the armor. Then, you prime it and draw the basic design with a pencil. (After that, you) paint it, clear-coat it, and get holes drilled to go over the armor."
Even when tragedy strikes, and a helicopter goes down, one of the few pieces Marines look to recover is the armor art. This is especially true when Marines have built a bond with their machine, encompassing overseas travel into combat zones over many years.
"That aircraft has been an extension of my life," said Giulano. "I'd been with it for six years, (to include) three deployments. (The armor art) is something in the aircraft that's a piece of us we can bring back. It's a representation of who we are."
People who don't work directly with these helos may not understand the bond each crew chief, mechanic, or pilot shares with these machines. However, they can always look at the illustration bolted against its steel exterior, and gain a better idea of not only what they're flying in, but with whom.
"Aircraft as old as ours have idiosyncrasies that they're known for," adds Osborn. "Each aircraft has a life of its own."