With the heavy thump-whump of spinning rotors, the end of an era was signaled at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, with the takeoff of the Department of Defense’s last flying H-46 helicopters Sept. 26. One of the three remaining HH-46E search and rescue models of the venerable war machine, commonly known as “Pedro,” departed from a ceremonial sendoff under gloomy skies at the air station’s Miller’s Landing facility and joined up with its two brethren over the Neuse River to return to the Marine Transport Squadron 1 flight line for the last time. The squadron is scheduled to turn the well-aged SAR birds over to the Navy Sept. 29 to meet their Oct. 1 transfer deadline.
Friday’s ceremony was attended by hundreds of friends and members of the “Phrog” family, the term historically and affectionately applied to the H-46 due to its squat, typically green, fuselage and ability to hop into the air from remote clearings. Pilots, maintainers, local dignitaries and others who have developed deep connections with Pedro over the years gathered to reminisce and say goodbye. It was clear that Pedro’s ability to build bridges between military and civilian communities will be a legacy that will stand for years to come.
These helicopters have been a common sight along the coastal region of North Carolina where they have supplemented the U.S. Coast Guard’s over-water SAR mission for decades. And while Cherry Point-based Marines live, work in and volunteer thousands of hours every year to the local community, there is no better symbol of the Marine Corps’ link to the community than the regular appearance of these orange and gray angels winging their way through the Carolina skies.
Although VMR-1’s primary SAR mission has been to provide support to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, the squadron has also distinguished itself through its support to regional authorities by finding lost people, and by providing emergency medical transport to regional hospitals from other health facilities, accident scenes and even cruise ships at sea. Additional missions included daily safety sweeps of the Cherry Point bombing range complex for trespassers, firefighting support to the ranges and helicopter support for fleet training.
Over the past decade, Pedro has averaged more than 50 lifesaving missions per year. In 1999, during Hurricane Floyd, Pedro crews rescued 399 people in three days and provided logistical support with emergency delivery of food and water to isolated communities throughout Eastern North Carolina.
The last combat-configured model of the aircraft, a CH-46 Sea Knight, flew its final flight on Aug. 1. It was flown by Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 774, a Reserve squadron based in Lakehurst, New Jersey. The CH-46 has been replaced in the Marine Corps inventory by the newer, faster, higher-flying MV-22 Osprey.
Meanwhile, Cherry Point’s three Phrogs steadfastly carried out their final missions with daily flights on the Carolina coast – a mission that is coming to an end primarily due to the Marine Corps’ tightening budget and due to the helicopters’ advanced age. Cherry Point’s oldest Phrog was accepted into the Marine Corps as a combat aircraft in August 1969. The youngest was accepted in May 1970.
The passing of this airframe is a bittersweet event for the Marines who have flown and maintained the helicopter over the past 50 years, especially for those who operate them today.
“It’s hard to see such a cherished partner go, but Cherry Point’s mission has always been to provide the best possible support to the warfighter,” said Cherry Point’s commanding officer, Col. Chris Pappas, at the send-off ceremony. “We recognize that the savings realized by the Marine Corps by the divestiture of the SAR mission will help ensure both current and future readiness by focusing on the weapons, equipment and training that warfighting Marines need.”
With Cherry Point’s SAR mission gone, the U.S. Coast Guard will continue to be responsible to provide of SAR off the North Carolina coast. Inland SAR in the United States is primarily the responsibility of the U.S. Air Force. In North Carolina, federal, state and local authorities, under the umbrella of the North Carolina Helicopter and Aquatic Rescue Team (NCHART), coordinate with the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army National Guard for inland SAR.
Here at Cherry Point, VMR-1 will continue its other mission of providing short and medium range rapid response/high speed multipurpose light transport of key personnel and critical logistics support to DOD. Those duties are conducted with two C-9 Skytrain aircraft and two UC-35 Cessna Citations. As for the Marines who have flown and serviced the HH-46 aircraft, the sundown of SAR at VMR-1 will open up new career opportunities here and in the fleet. Some of the aircrew and maintainers will make lateral transfers to other communities in the active force, such as the MV-22 Osprey or the F-35 Lighting II. Some pilots will stay in VMR-1 and fly one of the other two types of aircraft operated by the squadron.
While much of this transition will be transparent to many of the people who attended the final ceremony, one thing was clear – many will miss the familiar husky silhouette of four tandem-rotor life-savers on the VMR-1 flight line, and the distinctively urgent thumping of their six rotor blades as they rip across familiar flight paths en route to their next local emergency. But ultimately, said Pappas, this was one of many missions that we have here. We will continue to support the warfighter in every way possible, and we will do our best to be good neighbors to the community that we are so much a part of.
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