CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan — A CH-53E Super Stallion flew across the dawning sun here June 26 as it returned with an 18,000-pound piece of vital cargo slung beneath its belly. The sight of the aircraft against the painted morning sky was impressive on two accounts – the vision of the silhouetted helicopter floating in Afghanistan’s vibrant dawn, and the fact that the cargo toted below was a United Kingdom Mk3 Merlin (EH-101) helicopter.
The Super Stallion, deployed here with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 466, was recovering the aircraft from a forward operating base after the Merlin went down in a non-hostile event. Perhaps the most impressive part of the recovery mission – HMH-466 pulled it off with less than 18 hours notice.
“In order for it to go down,” Lt. Col. Mitch Cassell, the HMH-466 Commanding Officer, explained, “it required the entire squadron to throw themselves behind the lift.”
The planning and preparation involved in outfitting a CH-53E to carry tens of thousands of pounds is extensive and requires meticulous attention to detail. Pilots and crew in the ready room who weren’t even flying the mission planned it. An entire maintenance department jumped into action pulling off 2,000 pounds worth of gear, including the auxiliary fuel tanks, fuel probe, troop seats, ramp, cargo wench and utility hoist. “We had to remove all that equipment from our aircraft to make it light enough to lift the stricken Mk3 Merlin,” said Cassell.
The mission is called TRAP – Tactical Recovery of Aircraft or Personnel – a mission Marines actively train for all the time. However, very few real world TRAP missions have ever been conducted. Conducting one TRAP during a deployment is rare. Twice is practically unheard of… until now. In addition to the Mk3 Merlin mission, HMH-466 conducted an earlier TRAP mission to recover a U.S. Army MH-47G Chinook helicopter May 15 that made a hard landing near Kandahar.
This mission was also conducted with less than 24 hours notice and followed many of the same planning and execution processes, “but more weight had to be removed from our aircraft because the Chinook was much heavier than the Merlin” said Cassell. To successfully lift the Chinook, over 5,600 pounds of equipment had to be removed from the CH-53E helicopter.
“The fact that an Army unit was able to call across the boundaries to ask the Marine Corps to support a mission is pretty remarkable," said Lt. Col. Timothy Sheyda, HMH-466’s executive officer. “We were able to smoothly interact with their airborne assets on station, as well as their ground team which was at the site, and their command and control system that was in place.”
The CH-53E squadron is getting the call on these big missions because, according to Sheyda “there are only three aircraft in the world that could possibly do that lift.” The other two besides the CH-53 are the Russian-made MI-26 Halo and the CH-47 Chinook. Although those aircraft are available in the area, “the Marine Corps is the only service capable of reconfiguring its aircraft and performing the mission on such short notice.”
But the greatest accomplishment extends beyond the rescued aircraft being delivered to their respective owners. The capability the HMH-466 Marines have to plan, organize and execute these operations with very limited advance notice speaks to their teamwork and dedication.
“The fact that a team can throw a plan together in less than 24 hours to do a mission really validates the Marine Corps planning process,” Sheyda exclaimed. “This process will have to be passed on to future generations.”
He went on to say, “Marines are trained to be light, agile, quick and lethal. In this case, we were able to do all of those things and effectively accomplish our mission in a short timeline. That’s how we operate.”
At the end of the summer, HMH-466 will return to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., and pass off their responsibilities to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 361. As HMH-466 flies off into the sunset, HMH-361 picks up a “heavy” mission supporting the Afghan National Security and NATO Forces as the “heavy haulers” of southern Afghanistan.
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