MCCRADY TRAINING CENTER, S.C. -- The United States' far-reaching Global War on Terrorism has taken the Marine Corps to new and unique combat environments and this will likely continue.
Recent combat operations in urban locales such as Mogadishu, Somalia; Port au Prince, Haiti; and Baghdad, Iraq have proved the need for pilots and helicopter air crews to maintain a proficiency in flying over and into urban settings. Unfortunately, the opportunities to conduct training in such settings are few and far between.
In order to ensure its pilots don't suffer from a lack of such opportunities, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced), the aviation combat element of the 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit, is using every free moment during a recent training exercise to train over a large city. In this case, the city is Columbia, S.C., and the exercise is the MEU's Training in an Urban Environment Exercise (TRUEX).
Supporting precision raids in Columbia is the squadron's primary mission during TRUEX, but when raids aren't underway, the pilots tok to the sky to sharpen their flying skills. The pilots are trained extensively in urban flight navigation, urban landing zone familiarization, aerial refueling, and the use of night vision goggles in urban terrain.
"There is potential for us to operate in an urban environment when we deploy," Maj. Gary McGee, of Harmon, Oklahoma, a CH-46E Sea Knight assault helicopter pilot with HMM-266 (Rein). "TRUEX is the only real opportunity we get to train in an urban environment, so it is very important we make most of the time we have."
Flying around a metropolitan area forces pilots to trade normal aviation maps for street maps, and presents obstacles rarely found near military installations or in the faux cities constructed for the Marines to conduct training.
"Columbia [and cities like it] offers many hazards we don't normally see around Lejeune," said 1st Lt. Gregory Baker, co-pilot in Maj. McGee's Sea Knight and Gwinnett, Georgia native. "There are large buildings, power lines, towers, increased air traffic, more city light while using night vision, and even civilians on the landing zones."
Learning to identify, navigate in the vicinity of, maneuver around, and avoid such obstacles is the primary purpose of the increased training. Yet the extra training doesn't benefit just the pilots. Crew chiefs, in addition to handling emergencies on an aircraft, also serve as an extra set of eyes for the pilots during descent and take-off.
"This is my first time training in an urban environment, so it's a valuable experience for me," said Lance Cpl. Kevin Yates, of Spiro, Oklahoma, a Sea Knight crew chief. "Landing in tight spaces and watching out for different hazards like people in the landing zone makes things a little more difficult."
Becoming proficient in flying around urban areas is paramount to the MEU's success in its upcoming deployment should it be forced to operate in such areas, and every bit of training makes the squadron that much better.
"If we do end up somewhere like Iraq, we will be more comfortable and confident approaching buildings and identifying hazards, added Yates. "After all, that's key to ensuring the safety of our aircraft and passengers."
In addition to HMM-266 (Rein), the 22d MEU consists of its Command Element, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines, and MEU Service Support Group 22. The unit is scheduled to deploy early next year aboard the amphibious assault ships WASP, WHIDBEY ISLAND, and SHREVEPORT as part of the WASP Expeditionary Strike Group/22d MEU.
For more information on the mission, organization and status of the 22d MEU, visit the unit's web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.