USS BONHOMME RICHARD, At Sea – Hovering above five landing support Marines, a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter slowly descends, dangling a charged hook underneath the hulking aircraft closer to the load sitting on the deck. As one Marine reaches up with a static wand to ground the 200,000 volts rushing through the hook, the other four scramble to secure the load.
Marines with Combat Logistics Battalion 31 and Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 (Reinforced), both with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, conducted external lift training on the flight deck here, Sept. 13.
The Helicopter Support Team of CLB-31 and the crews of the helicopters play important roles in the 31st MEU’s capability to execute external lifts. The HST provides ground support to the CH-53E, which can lift up to 36,000 pounds. This lift capability can be used to overcome difficult terrain and land-based obstacles when executing logistical re-supply.
Anything from M777A2 Lightweight Howitzers to a pallet of Meals Ready-to-Eat can be quickly and effectively moved from the ship’s flight deck to the troops in the field.
“With the capabilities of the CH-53E, if you can hook it up and its within weight standards, we can carry it,” said Capt. William E. Wilson, a 30-year-old CH-53E helicopter pilot with VMM-265 (Rein), 31st MEU, and a native of Greenwich, Conn. “Having the capability to carry the heavy, unconventional loads, we can move things from the ship to the shore when our other transportation capabilities cannot.”
Before the helicopter can lift cargo, the HST Marines must prepare the load for transportation. The team has to ensure the load is properly secured for the lift by using numerous high-yield safety straps. If one strap is not properly locked into place, the several thousand pound load could reposition and fall. Two pre-lift inspections, one by the HST and one by the pilot, check every strap before the lift can begin.
Once the inspection is complete, the CH-53E pilots lift the helicopter into the air while the HST Marines don their protective equipment. Because of the 200,000 volts surging through the hook below the helicopter, the HST Marines wear rubber gloves while one Marine carries a static wand. The static wand, a long, yellow grounding tool, removes the charge from the hook as the helicopter moves into range.
“Every Marine in the HST recognizes the dangers when the helicopter is coming close to the load,” said Lance Cpl. Jeffrey M. Dobson, a 19-year-old landing support specialist with CLB-31, 31st MEU, and a native of Leesburg, Fla. “We have hundreds of thousands of volts of electricity , a couple thousand pound load and a huge aircraft right above our heads.”
While the HST Marines are waiting below the aircraft, the pilots of the CH-53E are completely blind during their descent. The precision placement of the aircraft, and the charged hook, relies completely on the crew chiefs looking out the sides. Guiding the pilots via radio communication, five feet at a time, the crew chiefs are the pilots’ eyes. Once the hook secures the load and all safety checks are complete and the HST Marines are a safe distance away, the pilots lift the load away from the flight deck.
The HST team conducts the entire process before and during every deployment of the 31st MEU. Constant training is necessary, not only for the safety of the Marines but the readiness of the unit.
“Without this training on a regular basis, there would be an increased risk of injures because of all the moving parts and the speed of the process,” said Sgt. Daniel A. McGhee, the landing support platoon sergeant with CLB-31, 31st MEU, and a native of Detroit, Mich. “The HST team could be called upon to do this for real and this makes us ready.”
The 31st MEU is currently conducting Fall Patrol 13, a regularly scheduled patrol of the Asia-Pacific region. The 31st MEU is the Marine Corps’ force in readiness in the Asia-Pacific region and the only continuously forward deployed MEU.