ABOARD USS PONCE --
A detachment of Marines and sailors from the USS Kearsarge have been conducting flight operations aboard USS Ponce recently to cover a wider range of contingencies as the theater reserve force for United States Central Command.
A detachment of four CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters and support personnel from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261 (Reinforced), the Aviation Combat Element for the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), embarked aboard the USS Ponce Nov. 2, providing an agile response force in the Arabian Gulf.
"This is the largest amount we can have on board. I have no more room to put anything else." said Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Wynn, an aviation boson's mate handler, whose characteristic yellow shirt helps him stand out amongst the color-coded Navy flight deck crewmen as one of the personnel responsible for positioning and launching the aircraft.
Though it means tight quarters for the ship and the aircraft, the pairing has its advantages.
"When we work off the smaller deck, it's a pretty unique opportunity," said Capt. Garth Burnett, a Sea Knight pilot and the squadron's operations planner. "It gives the MEU and the ESG a lot more flexibility."
Sending a detachment to the Ponce also gives crews and pilots a chance to train for operations from a much smaller launch pad than they are used to, said Burnett.
"With our four aircraft, we don't have much room to maneuver, to reposition aircraft," said Burnett. "We don't have the space to keep the deck open."
Flight deck crewmen aboard Ponce also get the chance to sharpen their skills, said Wynn, a resident of Monroe, Ga.
"The only difficult problem is my crew's inexperience with moving aircraft," said Wynn, himself a 16-year Navy veteran. "That's the hard part; trying to train them at the same time I'm trying to get everything done in the time limits I'm allowed."
Aerial Observer Cpl. Joshua Risley notes that everyone is working diligently to get the job done, providing a helping hand no matter what the job.
"The purple shirts are fuelers and you have the yellow shirts - all movement on the decks go through the yellow shirts. But, there's not enough personnel out here, so you'll catch yellow shirts doing refueling and you'll catch refuelers doing chains," said Risley, a native of Brookfield, N.Y.
He said the all-hands effort happens just as much with the Marine crews.
"If an aircraft comes in and the aircraft is shutting down, getting ready to be put up for the night, you'll watch, and all the mechanics, even maintenance administration, go out there with and help secure these aircraft," said Risley.
Burnett says the operations aboard Ponce have been limited with MEU's the last several years due to the units going ashore to support ground operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Hopefully, it will be more and more common as we progress on to more of a theatre reserve and get back to a more traditional MEU role," said Burnett.