ABOARD U.S.S. KEARSARGE -- Hundreds of feet above sea level, unconcerned about the raging waves lapping at the ship's side below, pilots with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261 (reinforced) maneuver their helicopters and attack jets on and off the flight deck with calculated boldness and skill during Carrier Qualifications aboard the U.S.S. Kearsarge off the coast of Camp Lejeune, N.C., March 28 through April 5, 2007.
Every helicopter pilot from HMM-261 (rein), the "Raging Bulls," must have at least five day and five night "bounces" under their belt each year before being CQ certified, explained Capt. Adam D. Burner, a CH-46E Sea Knight pilot with HMM-261 (rein), the Aviation Combat Element of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. Without current qualification, the helicopter pilots are not allowed to insert and extract troops from the ship.
The training evolution not only targeted the pilots, but also came in handy for the crew chiefs, giving them a chance to hone their skills. The valuable training time gave newer pilots and crew chiefs a chance to tackle the complexities of air operations at sea before moving on to the next level of the pre-deployment training phase.
"This is good training especially for the newer crew chiefs that haven't had the chance to do any bounces," said veteran crew chief Staff Sgt. Christopher Dimas, as he adjusted the ear-piece on his cranial. "It gives them a chance to know what to expect when the time comes."
Experienced crew chiefs like Dimas are extremely important in helping guide the pilot with an extra set of eyes and assisting in the difficult task of safely landing the helicopter in tight spaces, sometimes between two or more helicopters.
Due to the elevation of the flight deck, landing a helicopter is much more complicated than it looks, explained Burner, who has been flying for over three years now. It takes a great deal of skill and finesse to do it right, he said.
The "Raging Bulls" AV-8B Harrier pilots also went through the rigors of day and night carrier qualifications during their time aboard the U.S.S. Kearsarge.
According to Capt. Brian R. Davis, a Harrier pilot with HMM-261 (rein) and an Operation Iraqi Freedom vet, the carrier qualifications were a team effort between the Marines and Navy personnel.
"We work hand and hand with Navy flight deck personnel during flight operations," said Davis as he prepped for flight in the squadron's ready room. "It's probably the most dynamic qualification that a Harrier pilot can earn."
To gain the night carrier qualification, Harrier pilots must complete four unaided landings with their night-vision goggles removed, and four aided landings with NVG's worn. The approaches and landings are controlled by Navy air traffic controllers. Additionally, the pilots must complete eight daytime landings to complete their carrier qualifications.
Even before getting to the ship, the Harrier pilots must have a minimum of 50 hours of flight time in the aircraft to land on the ship during the day, and 100 hours of flight time to land on ship at night. Also, they spend hours in a flight simulator and they practice landing on a land-based mock-up of an amphibious assault ship's deck.
Those who live and work aboard ship always know when the Harriers are practicing their take-offs and landings because of the extensive noise generated by the durable jet. But Davis was quick to point out that the noise of the jets and helicopters was, as he put it, "the sound of freedom."
"These qualifications are necessary for us to support any mission while deployed aboard the ship and to provide that critical support to those Marines on the ground," said Davis. "We must be carrier qualified."
HMM-261 (rein); Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment; Combat Logistics Battalion 22; and the 22nd MEU Command Element form the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. The unit is scheduled to deploy as part of the Kearsarge Expeditionary Strike Group later this year.
For more information on HMM-261 (rein) and the 22nd MEU, visit the unit website at http://www.22meu.usmc.mil.