KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan -- An entire reinforced helicopter squadron self-deployed from amphibious ships in the Arabian Sea approximately 450 miles inland April 11-14, to support operations in southern Afghanistan.
Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced), the Aviation Combat Element (ACE) of the 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), spent weeks planning their movement from the USS WASP to an airfield, formerly known as Kandahar International Airport.
"The arrival of the ACE now makes the MAGTF (Marine Air Ground Task Force) complete and ready for combat operations," explained Col. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., the MEU's commanding officer. He described the feat as a tremendous piece of airmanship and praised the "Fighting Griffins" leadership in completing the transition from shipboard ops to preparations for combat ashore.
The squadron spent considerable time planning the details of the movement. "Once we knew where we were going, we started planning for each contingency," said Capt. Lou Simon, a CH-46E Sea Knight pilot and the squadron's Weapons and Tactics Instructor. "We had to consider everything from TRAP (Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel) to RGR (Rapid Ground Refueling)."
Simon, from Branchburg, N.J., was responsible for developing the tactical routes for each of the three waves of aircraft flying from the USS WASP to Kandahar. Simon had a vested interest in ensuring the routes were sound, as he flew one of the helicopters in the first wave.
Another of HMM-266 (Rein)'s Sea Knight pilots, Capt. Curt McGahhey, said that the squadron's training prior to the deployment put them in good standing. "It was great to see how our training prepared us for our first real-world mission of this float, " said McGahhey. The Vineland N.J. native described the final leg of the flight as exciting, mainly due to the low-level flying as the helicopters skirted across southern Afghanistan.
Flying the aircraft was only the final piece to a complex puzzle. Prior to the flights, around-the-clock maintenance efforts by the enlisted Marines ensured aircraft were prepared for the long flight.
"We were working steadily to get all the birds ready," added Staff Sgt. Nelson Prince, a UH-1N Huey crew chief and current skid line chief. Prince is responsible for the 17 Marines who maintain the squadron's UH-1N Hueys and AH-1W Super Cobras, collectively referred to as "skids."
Prince rode one of the helicopters into country and compared the flight over southern Afghanistan to the arid deserts of the southwestern United States. "It was a unique experience," added Prince, who is originally from Victoria, Texas.
Once all the aircraft landed in Afghanistan, aircraft maintainers poured over the aircraft, checking every panel, blade, and filter. Sgt. Nick Bloomer, an aircraft mechanic and aerial gunner, stressed the importance of thorough and frequent aircraft inspections in Kandahar, where the dry wind constantly blows fine sand into every crevice on the aircraft.
"We'll have to work hard on preventive maintenance," said Bloomer, originally from Burnt Hills, N.Y.
The 22d MEU (SOC) is in Afghanistan to conduct combat and civil-military operations in coordination with coalition efforts to provide security and stability to the country.
In addition to HMM-266 (Rein), the 22d MEU (SOC) consists of its Command Element, Battalion Landing Team 1/6, and MEU Service Support Group 22.
For more information on the 22d MEU (SOC)'s role in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, visit the unit's web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.