AL ASAD AIR FIELD, Iraq -- In the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Marine AH-1W Super Cobra attack and UH-1N Huey utility helicopters prowled the skies of the Iraq destroying Iraqi Republican Guard tanks, demolishing enemy fortifications and shredding hostile troop concentrations.
As the initial invasion of Iraq gave way to the ongoing counterinsurgency operations being carried out throughout the Middle Eastern country, the role of these aircraft may have changed as the conflict has evolved, but has in no way diminished in importance.
A UH-1N Huey pilot flying for Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261 (Reinforced), the Super Cobras and Hueys in his squadron carry out a host of support missions for the infantrymen on the ground rooting out Iraq’s dangerous anti-government insurgency, said Capt. Mitchell L. Kirkland.
“We fly route reconnaissance, observation, helicopter and convoy escort, command and control, and of course, close air support missions,” said Kirkland, who is among several dozen Marines from Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HML/A) 167 attached to HMM-261 (Rein), which is currently deployed as the aviation combat element of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable). “Everything we do is in support of the rifleman on the ground.”
HMM-261’s complement of ‘skids’ [nickname for Hueys and Super Cobras because they stand on skids vice wheels] are constantly on the go supporting not only the 22nd MEU, but also other Marine and Iraqi army units operating throughout Iraq’s Al Anbar province, said Kirkland.
“We are just a small piece of ‘261’,” said Sgt. Markus Wiley, an aircraft mechanic supervisor from Lake City, Fla. “We’re kept just as busy as the rest of the squadron [which also includes the CH-46E Sea Knight and CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters, and AV-8B Harrier II jets].”
Wiley is on his second tour in Iraq, having deployed with his parent squadron, HML/A-167, in 2004, and says serving with a composite squadron like HMM-261 (Rein) presents a series of unique challenges.
“Everything seems to be much more fast-paced this time around,” he said. “Of course, we don’t have as many birds that we’re responsible for; but along with that, we don’t have as many people, so we’re always jumping to keep the helos flying.
“Combine that with the op tempo and the conditions we’re flying in, it’s really hard to perform the maintenance and daily and scheduled inspections, but we’re getting the job done even if it means working more than 14 hours a day.”
One of the young Marines that swarm over the Super Cobras and Hueys before and after missions is 19-year-old Pvt. 1st Class Jose Alfaro, of Narco, Calif.
“We have to do daily turnaround inspections whether the aircraft are flying or not,” said Alfaro. “Then there’s the preflight inspections, startup procedures before the aircraft take off, and as soon as they get back, we make sure they’re shut down properly, we check the engines for any problems, and tie down the blades. We’re constantly moving.”
The hard work of the skid mechanics is evident every time a Super Cobra or Huey takes off in a swirl of dust and returns from a mission safely.
Often the aircraft are employed in mixed sections consisting of one Huey and one Super Cobra, an arrangement that best capitalizes on the aircrafts’ individual strengths; the whopping firepower of the Super Cobra and the observation and maintenance provided by the Huey’s crew chiefs.
“We’re assigned aboard the Hueys to serve as aerial observers and door gunners,” said Sgt. Miguel A. Bisono, a New York City native serving as a Huey crew chief. “Having us along gives the section more the ability to carry out its mission more effectively.”
While the field of vision of helicopter pilots is normally limited to the front and sides, Bisono and his fellow crew chiefs can simply lean out the open cargo hatches of the Huey to get a 360-degree view of a potential battlefield.
“We can see stuff from the rear that the pilots might miss, and engage targets that the aircraft would’ve have to maneuver around to get at,” said Bisono, who takes to the sky behind either a 7.62mm or .50-caliber Gatling gun.
Because they’re trained in helicopter maintenance, the crew chiefs can also provide in-mission fixes to mechanical problems on both the Hueys and the Super Cobras.
“If there’s a problem and a space for us to touch down, we can jump out and usually fix most issues on the helos, so we can continue with the mission,” said Bisono, who is on his second Iraqi Freedom deployment. “In emergencies, we’re also casevac [casualty evacuation] capable and can get wounded guys to the hospital if we’re already on the scene.”
To persons in rear areas and bases, the drone of helicopter engines and popping of rotors may be an annoyance – but for Marines sparring with Iraqi insurgents or simply patrolling the country’s dangerous streets and deserts, the sound of Super Cobras and Hueys overhead provides a well-welcomed reminder that help from above is usually only seconds away.
Although it set sail from the United States in November with the 22nd MEU (SOC), upon its arrival in Iraq, HMM-261 was detached to serve under its parent command – the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing. Once the MEU departs Iraq, the squadron will once again fall in with the unit.
In addition to HMM-261 (Rein), the 22nd MEU (SOC) consists of its Command Element, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 2nd Marines, and MEU Service Support Group 22. The unit is conducting counterinsurgency operations in Iraq alongside elements of the Iraqi army.
For more information on the MEU’s role in Operation Iraqi Freedom, visit the unit’s web site at http://www.22meu.usmc.mil.