GHAZI AVIATION BASE, Pakistan, Sept. 7, 2010 â€“ Four Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and more than 60 soldiers arrived here today as part of the expansion of U.S. military flood relief efforts in Pakistan.
The arrival marks the beginning of a transition of the northern relief mission to the Armyâ€™s 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade. The current Ghazi-based forces — Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 165, the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Detachment 2 of the Navyâ€™s Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron — will move south in the coming weeks to operate from Pano Aqil airfield near Sukkur, where flooding is widespread.
Marine Corps Lt. Col. Todd Oneto, commander of HMM-165, said the Army will begin relief operations in the Swat valley almost immediately. His unit already has begun the transition by sharing pictures and information on the flight area and landing zones. Marine and Navy aviators also will work to familiarize Army aircrews through joint flights pairing Army and Marine helicopters or by accompanying Army crews on initial flights as observers, Oneto said.
Although flooding has largely subsided in northern Pakistan, the damage to bridges and infrastructure along the Swat Valley floor has left it largely cut off and in need of support.
Additional Army helicopters, including 10 heavy lift CH-47 Chinook helicopters, are scheduled to arrive at Ghazi in the coming week. The UH-60s were transported by cargo plane from their home base in Alaska to Chakala, Pakistan, then reassembled and flown to Ghazi.
As the Army helicopters arrive, Oneto said, he is confident the transition will be a smooth one as his unit prepares to move south.
â€œIâ€™m excited. We look forward to it. Itâ€™s going to be a whole different ball game,â€ he said. Oneto noted that the environment in the south would be similar to tsunami relief missions that the unit has completed in the past, but that he anticipates the heat and flooding will make the environment challenging.
Two Marine Corps CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters already have relocated to Pano Aqil and are flying relief operations, with two more scheduled to depart soon. The MH-53 and CH-53 heavy lift helicopters remaining at Ghazi eventually will transition south to operate directly off of the USS Peleliu after the Chinooks replace them here.
The transition of helicopters should allow for more effective operations, officials said, as Navy and Marine helicopters operating in the south will have better access to logistics and repair facilities on the Peleliu. Additionally, the Army helicopters are better suited to the elevations of northern Pakistan and the Swat Valley.
U.S. forces are operating in close coordination with the Pakistani government and military to assess and determine relief distribution locations.
Navy and Marine Corps helicopters arrived here in mid-August, following an initial response by the Army 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, which deployed here for several weeks in early August directly from Regional Command East in Afghanistan.
As of yesterday, U.S. military helicopters alone had delivered more than 2.4 million pounds of relief supplies and transported more than 12,000 people.
Oneto said he is proud of what his unit has accomplished in only a few weeks. â€œThey have exceeded all expectations, and I have high expectations to begin with,â€ he said.
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