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Sea Stallions saddle up for Iraq

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  • Sea Stallions saddle up for Iraq

    November 21, 2005

    Sea Stallions saddle up for Iraq
    Helos offer commanders a better lift

    By John Hoellwarth
    Times staff writer


    After years of virtual exile on Hawaii, the Corps’ small fleet of Sea Stallion helicopters is about ready to get some.
    The first all-CH-53D squadron is set to deploy to Iraq early next year, a first for the aging aircraft program since the war began in March 2003.

    Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463 is slated to relieve a medium-lift helicopter squadron of CH-46 Sea Knights in Iraq, a move that will kick-start the rotation of the Corps’ two other “Delta” squadrons, said Lt. Col. Randel Parker, HMH-463’s commanding officer.

    Despite their name, the three heavy helicopter squadrons of Marine Aircraft Group 24 at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, are considered medium-lift assets, although they can transport far more personnel and cargo than the Sea Knights.

    “Right now, we kind of fill the void between a medium-lift and a heavy-lift capacity,” Parker said. “We can lift twice as much as a 46, sometimes three times as much. But then, on the other hand, we can’t lift as heavy a load as a [CH-53E can]. We can lift Humvees, but we can’t lift howitzers.”

    The rotation of CH-53D squadrons to Iraq will give more lift capabilities to local commanders who have had to rely on aging Sea Knights, which remain in service due to delays in their replacement, the MV-22 Osprey.

    Squadrons in limbo

    The Deltas were initially envisioned as the Corps’ go-to heavy-lift helicopters when they were first fielded in 1969.

    “When the Delta was produced in the ’60s, it was the most capable from a payload and range standpoint,” said Lt. Col. Dave Dowling, heavy-lift requirements coordinator at Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. “But we determined after Vietnam that we needed to build something bigger.”

    About 10 years later, another engine and another rotor blade were added to the Delta, and the CH-53E Super Stallion was born.

    Over time, the Echo replaced the Delta throughout the Corps in every heavy-helicopter squadron except the three under MAG-24. Although they retained their heavy-helicopter designation, the three squadrons — HMH-362, 363 and 463 — found themselves in limbo during the early 1990s, both operationally and in terms of their capability.

    When that happened, the Delta squadrons found themselves all but operationally invisible for their first four years in the Pacific, which Parker described as a “dark time” for the Delta community.

    Though MAG-24 began lobbying for itself in 1995, it wasn’t until late 1999 that its squadrons were finally involved in the Unit Deployment Program that rotates units to Okinawa, Japan, to augment III Marine Expeditionary Force. The MAG now rotates its forces there and regularly sends detachments to augment the aviation combat element of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.

    “For a while there, I think, though we supported 3rd Marines, we were one of the best-kept secrets in Hawaii. We had a lot of capability, but nowhere to go,” Parker said. “If you were with a Delta squadron, you were not attached to the MEU, you were not attached to any UDP and you were definitely outside of what you would have considered the mainstream of what was going on in the Marine Corps.

    “With the UDP, we were able to strut around a bit,” he said. “But with [the Iraq deployment], I think the Corps will be able to take advantage of the Delta again.”

    Aviation officials are also making sure that every last ounce of life is coaxed out of the aging Deltas.

    The depot at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., conducts an engine reliability improvement program that involves regularly scheduled third-echelon maintenance, which is a complete overhaul of nearly all of the aircraft’s moving parts, said John Milliman, a spokesman for Naval Air Systems Command.

    The program helps the Corps squeeze the last drop of life out of the Delta’s discontinued General Electric T64-413 engine, which Milliman said gets less reliable as it gets older.

    “We can’t afford to let it go quietly into the night,” he said of the Vietnam-era aircraft. “We need this aircraft, and we’ll need it for a few more years here.”

    And now that the need for Deltas is coming straight out of the war zone, the aircraft’s pilots and maintainers are champing at the bit for a chance to get into the fight.

    Parker described the looming deployment as “very significant” for the entire Delta community. He said deploying MAG-24 squadrons will not only bring a heavier lift capability to Iraq but perhaps even ease some of the workload for other squadrons that have conducted nonstop rotations since the war on terrorism began.

    “Everyone is really excited to actually be getting into the fight,” said Cpl. Joel Kosoris, a crew chief and mechanic with HMH-463. “A lot of people here have just been stuck in Hawaii and are happy to be able to do their part.”
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