USS NASSAU, At Sea -- The flight line at Al Asad Air Base was a flurry of rotor blades and wrench-toting men and women while Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261 (Reinforced) was in Iraq.
Night and day for months, these mechanics, avionics and air frame specialists and a myriad of other supporting personnel of HMM-261 (Rein) enabled the squadron’s 1,845 sorties of more than 3,000 combat flight hours. Even though those on the flight line rarely saw the direct benefits of their job, their hard work kept Marines throughout Iraq safe.
“We delivered a lot of bullets and Band-Aids,” said squadron operations chief, Gunnery Sgt. David P. Eidem. “And, we also took a lot of Marines into combat on tactical insertion missions and raids,” said the Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran from Omaha, Neb.
According to Eidem, the squadron transported over 184 tons of cargo and 5,380 troops, including both the Commandant and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps.
According to Capt. Greg Dono, a UH-1N Huey helicopter pilot, the squadron was always busy.
“We usually supported the MEU [22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable)] by providing route reconnaissance, convoy escorts, and close air support to keep an eye on any land the ground forces couldn’t see,” said Dono.
Besides providing added situational awareness for ground commanders, the squadron benefited ground pounding grunts in another way.
“We’re also a morale booster,” said the Huntington Station, N.Y., native, “because we’re a deterrent for insurgent activity. While we were overhead, they [ground forces] were never hit by an IED or small arms fire. We tend to keep the bad guys inside,” said the OIF veteran.
Marines labored around the clock to keep pilots like Dono airborne. They worked 43,000 hours to complete 8,700 maintenance requests. That means, on average, each hour of flight time required about 14 hours of maintenance.
“Each man puts in at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week,” said CH-46E air frame mechanic Cpl. Anthony L. Booth, an Eastridge, Tenn., native. “The shop runs 24 hours a day, and it takes everyone lending a hand to get the job done.”
“If it wasn’t for us, the squadron would fall to pieces,” added another CH-46E air framer, Sgt. Evan R. Woods of Tucson, Ariz. “In the rain, when it’s cold at night, we’re there any time a bird takes off just in case something goes wrong,” said Woods, also on his second Iraq tour. “Usually we change out the component on the spot and let the pilot continue the mission.”
Another OIF veteran, AH-1W Super Cobra and UH-1N Huey air frame mechanic Cpl. Daniel C. Landin, of Ozona, Texas, said after every 200 hours of flight time, they'd tear the birds apart for a phase inspection.
The one to two-week project allows the mechanics to fix rivets, inspect the hydraulic systems that control the bird, repair broken fiberglass and swap out “high-time” components, said Sgt. Jason J. Kramersmeier, a CH-53E Super Stallion air frame mechanic from Altoona, Iowa.
The squadron’s component administration shop keeps a close log of every aircraft’s parts to make sure they’re replaced on schedule, said Landin.
While air framers inspect hydraulics and fiberglass, avionics specialists monitor electronic systems and do their part to help keep them free of rust.
“Here in the avionics shop, we do the wire repair, electronic troubleshooting and corrosion control,” said avionic systems specialist Lance Cpl. Schuyler A. Ferdinandson, of Mahopac, N.Y. “After crossing the Atlantic [Ocean] on ship, the salt water had rusted everything. Every shop donates people to a special shop that constantly busts rust and paints. When there’s nothing to do, there’s always corrosion control.”
Besides working side-by-side to keep aircraft free of rust and looking mean, the shops also combined their talents on a daily basis to divide up the workload and learn something new, said Woods.
“It’s been a learning experience, seeing how the other shops are run,” he added. “We have twelve 46s, four 53s, four Cobras, two Hueys, and six Harriers; so everyone’s had a hand in doing something new.”
Because of their hard work, the squadron fulfilled more than 500 aviation support requests. HMM-261 (Rein.) also remained on-call for emergency casualty evacuation missions as an ever-present secondary duty.
“A helicopter casevac is the quickest way to get the patient from the front line to the next level of care,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Clint M. Day, a casevac-qualified corpsman from the 22nd MEU (SOC) Command Element.
“We had a corpsman who received severe trauma to his legs from an explosion in Hit,” said Day. “Within 30 minutes, he was in the air and on his way to Al Asad [Medical Clinic]. Because of the helicopter, he was able to receive the direct benefit of a skilled surgeon. They had to amputate his legs, but it saved his life.”
Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261 (Rein.) accomplished life-saving casualty evacuation missions, provided close air support on MEU operations like Koa Canyon and Smokewagon, and ensured the safety and morale of many Marines over the previous two months. The Marines on the flight line rarely saw anything besides the constant influx of work demands, but their hard work made great things possible.
The squadron returned to the ships of the Nassau Strike Group and is working for the 22nd MEU (SOC) along with Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 2nd Marines and MEU Service Support Group-22. For more information on the 22nd MEU (SOC), visit the unit web site www.22meu.usmc.mil.