NAVAL AIR STATION OCEANA, Va. -- They exercise the ultimate advantage of being both invisible and seeing the unseen. Skimming across rooftops while scanning for danger, these superheroes are on call 24 hours day and ready to fight terrorism wherever it may lurk.
But this crew is no Justice League, they aren’t Spiderman and they don’t need the Dark Knight’s bat symbol to know when to fight. They’re the "Blue Knights" of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (Reinforced) and they’re “second to none” when it comes to working night operations with image intensifying gear.
Flying in the Norfolk, Va., area as the air combat element of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit during its Training in an Urban Environment exercise, HMM-365 (Rein.), is constantly perfecting their skill with night vision goggles during low-light operations.
“There are no lights on the helicopter,” said Lance Cpl. Chris W. Colbath, HMM-365 (Rein.) crew chief. “Nothing can see us but we can see everything – it’s an awesome feeling.”
The alien sensation of operating a helicopter in the blackness of night is “a lot like looking through a toilet paper tube,” added Capt. Rich P. Ayers, HMM-365 (Rein.) aviation safety officer and CH-46E Sea Knight pilot. “You have to scan the horizon a lot more and look around because you lose a lot of your depth perception.”
Losing that depth perception – from 180 degrees down to 40 – increases the need for the entire crew to work together, said Ayers.
“Flying night operations is a total crew effort,” explained Ayers. “The crew chiefs are the ones calling you down to the deck, because we can’t see. Landing in an urban environment means that you’ll be landing in some tight zones and crew chiefs will save you more times than you can count.”
“The goggles drop the field of view and the nose comes up high,” added Sgt. Jared E. Daly, HMM-365 (rein.) crew chief. “The pilots lose all perception. We’re actually looking to see where the ground is and see that it’s clear and avoid any holes.”
The midnight ballet performed by helicopter crews is made more difficult by NVG fatigue, a condition that occurs due to the strenuous scanning of the horizon, said Capt. Randall T. Schindler, HMM-365 (Rein.) CH-46E Sea Knight pilot.
“When you’re actually flying not only are you looking though the goggles but you’re also looking down without them at the gauges then back through the NVG’s,” said Schindler. “A lot of people don‘t know about the fatigue the goggles cause. Because you have to scan so much it wears you out faster. After the first time you wear the goggles you’re really worn out after the flight.”
In addition to fatigue, ambient and cultural lighting can play havoc on the goggles, hampering the NVG’s capabilities, said Ayers.
“In an urban environment, like the Norfolk area, there’s a lot of ambient and cultural light that tend to bloom out the goggles,” said Ayers. “Flying in an urban area when that’s happening makes it hard to pick out details like landing zones and lights for navigation.”
That situation can be even more hair-raising in a combat environment like Iraq, where a dust cloud or an unidentified person standing outside a building can increase the threat to the crew, said Schindler.
“Over in Iraq you could fly into a dust cloud and the dust would create a sparkle effect in the goggles and you can lose your references,” said Schindler. “You depend on the crew chiefs to see the ground. It’s like having four pilots on the plane.”
“In Iraq you have a different mindset, you’re mind is doing different things,” added Cpl. John R. Miller, HMM-365 (rein.) crew chief. “When you see someone outside their house here, in reality, it’s no big deal, but over there, it’s a lot more exciting. Anything and everything you do is amplified 10 fold during night operations.”
For the Marines of HMM-365 (Rein.) night operations don’t require the crew to wear capes. They don’t have to be mutants and they don’t have to run faster than a speeding bullet. However, they do have the ability to fly and they do use their X-Ray vision to own the night and keep evil on its toes and Americans safe - whether it’s training stateside or fighting terrorists abroad.
Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (Reinforced) is scheduled to deploy this spring to the European and Central Command theaters of operations as the air combat element of the 24th MEU, which is composed of its Command Element; Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment; and MEU Service Support Group 24.