Marine Aircraft Group – Afghanistan assisted in the retrograde of equipment and personnel from northern Helmand, May 3-5, 2014.
Before the last Marines and sailors of Forward Operating Bases Nolay and Sabit Qadam convoyed out of northern Helmand to return to Camp Leatherneck for the final time, the “Gunfighters” of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369 and “Heavyweights” of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 466 provided overwatch for returning vehicle convoys as well as retrograde support.
“We were supporting ground convoys,” said Capt. Galen Landis, a UH-1Y Huey pilot and operations officer with HMLA-369, and a Hershey, Pennsylvania, native. “Primarily from the ground they’re only going to be able to see to the next ridge line. When we’re in the overhead, we can see out a lot further than they can; we have that bird’s-eye view we’re going to be able to look down. They also have the handheld (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) that they’re going to be launching and looking in a rover capability which gives them that bird’s- eye view when we’re not around, but the biggest thing is that the rotor sound in the overhead is that deterrent to any enemy forces planning attacks.
“Today it was more the shaping mission to set the retrograde out of Sangin. They were setting up the (ground security) positions along the route home,” Landis explained following a mission on May 3. “Any time we have ground forces out and out of their vehicles as well, we’re going to be watching out for (improvised explosive devices) and complex attacks, planning for that worst case scenario. If we can keep that from happening or keep that from compounding on itself, it’s going to keep the ground guys out of harm’s way.”
While the Gunfighters continued flying more than 100 hours providing aerial assault support throughout the retrograde from Sangin, the Heavyweights of HMH-466 took to the skies over northern Helmand to help retrograde supplies, equipment and personnel not convoying back with Charley Company of 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment from FOB Sabit Qadam or the Security Force Assistance Advisor Team from FOB Nolay.
“We’re supporting our boys in Sangin to help them move back here,” said Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Nino, flightline division chief and a native of Waipahu, Hawaii. “We’re going over there multiple times throughout the day to pick up their gear and their cargo. We’re going to put them inside the aircraft, and we’re going to external lift their gear outside the aircraft until we’re done. As many runs as it takes.”
Major Michael Smith, the operations officer and a CH-53E Super Stallion pilot with HMH-466 explained that without the heavy lift capability of the CH-53E Super Stallions, moving some of the gear and personnel would be significantly more difficult and the crews of HMH-466 were more than glad to help, especially when it helps the Marines on the ground.
“The combined power of the (Marine Air Ground Task Force) is essential in what the MAGTF can do out here and making sure the infantry is provided for,” said Smith, a native of Middle Town, Rhode Island. “I think supporting them logistically and anything we can do to make their lives easier in terms of offensive air support from the MAG and in particular (surveillance) and helping assist in the transition, you know those things have been essential. That’s what the (Aviation Command Element) exists to do.”
The Marines of HMH-466 lifted 76,000 pounds of gear and more than 100 personnel out of the Sangin district that day. Smith went on to praise the crew he flies with as well as all Marines of HMH-466.
“The crew preforms at the high level expected of all HMH-466 ‘Heavyweight’ Marines. We exist to support the infantry and we take that very seriously. During the retrograde the squadron formed a deep, long-lasting bond with the Marines of ‘Suicide Charley,’ 1st Bn., 7th Marines, and was honored to support them.
“This, like all the missions in support of the northern Helmand retrograde, was a challenging one, in a challenging environment with a smart, capable and determined enemy. Each crew member played a vital role and their attention to detail was high throughout. It takes a crew to fight a CH-53, especially when things go wrong. The northern Helmand retrograde really showcased the versatility and capability of the CH-53E and heavy lift, which is unmatched. The real credit goes to the ‘Heavyweight’ maintenance Marines, who work tremendously hard behind the scenes to keep the Super Stallion flying. Their hard work and professionalism is nothing short of admirable.”
Story by Sgt. Frances Johnson