FORWARD OPERATING BASE RIPLEY, Afghanistan -- As the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) entered its second month of operations in Afghanistan, the unit's AH-1W Super Cobra and UH-1N Huey flight crews thought they might leave the country without firing a shot.
For more than a month, these helicopters were a constant presence overhead as troops on the ground pushed further into central Afghanistan scouring the region for weapons caches and anti-coalition militia, yet remained out of the action.
"Mainly we just flew escort missions," said Gunnery Sgt. Andrew Radford, of Flagstaff, Ariz., an UH-1N Huey crew chief assigned to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced), the MEU's aviation combat element. "We had the route from Kandahar to Tarin Kowt almost memorized."
Yet all that changed June 2.
When anti-coalition forces on the ground fired machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at two Marine aircraft on a reconnaissance mission that morning, they unknowingly sparked off a string of firefights that would finally bring these war birds into the fray.
"Normally we'd fly in dedicated sections of two Cobras or two Hueys," said Capt. Benoit Letendre, a Huey pilot, "but here in Afghanistan there's no armored threat so each flight doesn't need the firepower of two Snakes [Super Cobras]."
With that in mind, and seeking to capitalize on each aircraft's unique capabilities, the MEU flies its Cobras and Hueys in what they call a 'skid duo,' so named because of the aircraft's use of skids instead of wheels like the other helicopters in HMM-266 (Rein).
"We fly mixed sections because the aircraft compliment one another," said Radford.
While the Super Cobra, a dedicated attack helicopter, packs a heavy punch with its 20mm cannon, rockets, and precision-guided munitions, the Huey, a utility helicopter by trade, provides the team with an extra set of eyes that has proven essential for successful combat operations in Afghanistan's rugged terrain.
"The guys we're fighting are smart," said Letendre. "Between fighting the Soviets and their civil war, they've gotten very adept at using the terrain to their advantage. There's no shortage of places to hide."
While the tandem seating of the Cobra's two-person crew gives them exceptional observation to the front, their fields of view to the side and rear are limited, and that's where the Huey's side-by-side pilot/co-pilot seating configuration and two crew chiefs come in.
"We can look to the side and rear much better than the Cobras," Radford said, acknowledging that what the Huey lacks in firepower it makes up for with a nearly unrestricted view of the terrain below. "We're behind the guns and can keep an eye on the ground while the pilots focus on the front and flying."
During the engagement on June 2, after a volley of enemy rocket-propelled grenades and machine gun fire failed to find their mark against a skid duo, the door gunners on the Huey immediately responded with their machine guns. Their fire helped mark the target for a follow-on strike by the more heavily-armed Cobras.
Capt. Jimmy Brown, of San Jose, Calif. is a Super Cobra pilot and credits the aircraft combination with the MEU's success in its recent fighting against Taliban and anti-coalition forces.
"The terrain here is lot different than Iraq where the enemy was more defined," he said. "The Hueys help us pick out targets we might otherwise miss in this terrain and we can fly in and help close the door on the enemy."
Additionally, because the Huey crew chiefs can work on both their aircraft and the Super Cobras, field repairs are possible in the event of a mechanical problem.
"If either aircraft goes down with a minor problem," Letendre said, "one of the crew chiefs can grab a tool box, fix the problem, and get the aircraft back in the fight."
Because of the wide range of armament carried by the two aircraft, their presence during a firefight gives forward air controllers on the ground a greater flexibility in calling in support.
"There may be times when the enemy is too close to our forces for the Cobras to engage with rockets or cannon," said Radford, "but the Huey can get in with our machine guns so the mix of weapons between the Cobras and Hueys is really good."
In the days following the first sustained firefight on June 2, skid duos flew in near constant support of the MEU's ground combat element as it continued its drive against enemy forces.
In addition to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced), the 22nd MEU (SOC) consists of its Command Element, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines, and MEU Service Support Group 22. The MEU is in Afghanistan conducting combat and civil military operations as Task Force Linebacker alongside elements of the Army's 25th Infantry Division.
For more information on the 22nd MEU (SOC)'s role in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, visit the unit's web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.