OFF THE COAST, Haiti --
Local Haitians look up to the sky while a thundering sound grows louder as a Marine helicopter appears over top a field of palm trees and thick vegetation, within no time the Marines are on the deck.
This has become an everyday occurrence for the locals in Haiti as aircraft from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit continue to fly missions in support of Operation Unified Response, the coordinated effort of the U.S military, USAID, NGOs, and U.N. to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to Haiti after a 7.0 earthquake hit the country Jan. 12.
Operating from the decks of USS Nassau, USS Ashland and USS Mesa Verde, MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift helicopters, and UH-1N Hueys have performed a number of tasks daily from ship to shore, including delivering supplies, moving Marines, and aerial surveys. They have even performed emergency casualty evacuations of injured Haitians, flying them back to the Nassau for medical treatment.
All this is made possible by the tireless efforts of the Marines and Sailors of Marine Medium Tilt-Rotor Squadron VMM-162 (Reinforced), the aviation element for 24th MEU.
“It is very intense, every mission that the MEU does, we are a part of it, whether we are the main mode of transportation or we are on standby and in the planning process,” said Maj. Larry Bailey, the operations officer for VMM-162 (Rein).
The unit is equipped with 10 MV-22B Ospreys, four CH-53E Super Stallions, six AV-8B Harriers, four AH-1W Super Cobras and three UH-1N Iroquois (better known as Hueys or Skids).
While in Haiti the main effort has been the CH-53 Super Stallions and the Corps’ newest aircraft, the MV-22 Ospreys, explained Bailey. Both aircraft provide a significant lift capability able to carry up to 17,000 lbs. in the CH-53 and up to 8,000 lbs. with the Osprey. The Osprey has also provided some flexibility for the Marines to execute some missions here.
“Because of some timeline constraints, the speed of the Osprey allows us to use two aircraft to insert multiple teams of Marines and Sailors into multiple locations; whereas it would take three to four CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters,” said Bailey, a Tenino, Wash., native.
With all the aircraft combined, the squadron has covered over 100 flights and over 220 flight hours including test flights. During all their flights they have transported more than 55,100 lbs. of food, 14,600 liters of water, medical supplies, and 1,000 passengers, including civilians, Marines and Sailors.
Just as important, but not as glorified, is the role the Marines who perform all the maintenance required to keep the aircraft flying. Without the mechanics and technicians there would be no aircraft to bring move Marines around Haiti, conduct casualty evacuations, and resupply the troops. Plain and simple the ‘birds’ don’t fly unless they are in working condition.
“Maintenance is extremely important to the mission of the MEU. If we don’t do our jobs then the aircraft wouldn’t fly, which would make our mission here impossible,” said Master Gunnery Sgt. Marco Argento, maintenance chief, VMM-162 (Rein).
There is someone working to prepare the birds for the next mission every hour of every day. Due to the current operational tempo, there are flights going in and out all day. Each aircraft requires several hours of maintenance before it is back in action.
“There are numerous hours of maintenance conducted per every flight hour, if it is routine, daily maintenance it could only take a few hours, but if it is a more serious issue it could take anywhere from 16 to 20 hours of work until an aircraft is ready for launch again,” said Argento, a native of Sunrise, Fla. “If an aircraft gets off the deck than it is a mission success for maintenance.”
Although these long hours of planning, flying and maintenance may become stressful at times, the Marines and Sailors of VMM-162 (Rein) have done everything to prepare for this and are ready to put in the hours to get the job done.
They have and will continue to provide aviation support and work hand in hand with the other MEU Support Elements to accomplish the mission at hand.
“Knowing that we’re making a difference is what makes all of this worth it, whether it’s the Marines and Sailors here or the people of Haiti, they are depending on us to be ready to fly when they need us,” said Capt. Zachary R. Webb, an Osprey pilot from Orange, Calif. “We drop them off where they need to be, transport the supplies they need and ensure that they have a safe ride home.”