MOSUL, Iraq -- As the Marines and Sailors of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-264 (Reinforced), 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) flew into Northern Iraq in mid-April, they were fulfilling a vision and executing a plan nearly a year in the making.
As operations in Afghanistan in November 2001 proved, you can't bring the fight to the enemy, if you can't get there. In that campaign, Marine CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters and KC-130 transport airplanes flew more than 500 miles inland to transport personnel, equipment and subsistence to the region. Initially, the CH-53E, with its aerial refueling capability and large fuel tanks, was the helicopter of choice.
The other helicopters in the Aviation Combat Element including the CH-46E Sea Knights could not get there without the establishment of critical forward arming and refueling points or FARPs at key locations within Pakistan.
To increase the combat effectiveness and range of the "workhorse of Marine aviation," the Sea Knight squadron leaders examined ways to extend the reach of this most populous airframe. In addition to removing all non-essential gear and equipment, Marine leaders found a relatively dormant equipment feature, auxiliary internal fuel tanks.
"About 10 years ago, the Marine Corps went to the 'Bull Phrog' variant of the CH-46E with its larger external fuel tanks," said Lt. Col. John Torres, the Commanding Officer of HMM-264 (Rein). "Since that time, many squadrons have abandoned the use of their internal auxiliary fuel tanks. So, as an internal squadron initiative, we worked hard throughout the pre-deployment work-ups to get those systems back online, ensuring that we had all the necessary gear and equipment for them, and then trained our Marines on how to use them."
To get to Mosul, six of Torres' CH-46E helicopters flew more than 400 miles inland, nearly three times the 150-mile (round trip) combat radius of that airframe. "Without those tanks, the MEU would have only had six CH-53's on the deck here in Mosul instead of six CH-53's and six CH-46's," said the Brooklyn, N.Y., native. But, aviation fuel was going to continue to be a problem.
"When we arrived in Iraq, there was limited aviation fuel at a FARP in Bashur and there was stranded fuel in Irbil [lacking the pumps and hoses to draw upon it]," said Maj. James G. Flynn, HMM-264 (Rein) Operations Officer. "Logistically supporting the aircraft in this sector of the country was very difficult with an initial fuel schedule that was sporadic at best. Additionally, our flight crews flew a number of sorties in the first 36 hours of our mission here with those 12 helicopters lifting Alpha, Bravo and Weapons Companies and the entire aviation component during that time.
Naturally, we used a lot to fuel to make that ambitious schedule possible. Our FARP guys did a great job! At Irbil, they established a dual point FARP and made an unworkable FARP workable within just 1.5 hours of hitting the deck."
For the pilots within the squadron, the establishment of the Irbil FARP was very important. "Prior to Irbil, we had to go to Bashur to refuel, an hour flight. It would be the same as driving your car an hour out of town just to fill the tank," said Maj. James M. Garrett III, a CH-46E pilot and the squadron's logistics officer. "In the first week or so, we were entirely dependent upon KC-130 refuelers for fuel. They would fly 8 hours at max conserve just to bring us 10,000 pounds of fuel or roughly 1,500 gallons. Fuel continued to be a problem until we were able to establish a ground-based fuel delivery system," said the Six Mile, SC native.
Give Marines a challenge and they will find a way to make it work: these Marines were no different. With the sudden collapse of Iraq's uniformed armed forces in the north, getting 'boots on the ground' rapidly was of paramount importance. Thus, the squadron and the 26th MEU (SOC) came in light with very few vehicles and little to no aviation maintenance gear, supplies or equipment. Despite these, challenges, the squadron maintained 100% availability of their aircraft throughout the squadron's two weeks in country.
"I am very proud of the work that our maintenance department and all of our support personnel did while we were here," said Torres.
The squadron did not drop a single aviation mission during the operation and sustained a day package of four CH-46Es and four CH-53Es and a night package of two CH-46Es and two CH-53Es - a considerable feat considering only two thirds of the unit's aviation assault package was ashore, Torres said.
"The majority of the work in maintaining these aircraft is done in planning," said Chief Warrant Officer-2 Phillip L. Wise, 37, aviation maintenance officer for HMM-264 (Rein). "If you do your homework, it makes all of this a lot easier to do. Once we got here, we desperately lacked vehicle and forklift support, which made things just that much harder. It really makes you appreciate the MSSG [MEU Service Support Group-26]," said the Salem, Ind., native.
"Our maintainers and air crews deserve a lot of credit," Torres said. "They kept us operational and in the fight and decisions made prior to deploying our 'Phrogs' [CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters] are paying big dividends here. We wanted to make the CH-46E a long-range player for the MEU Commander and we did that."
For more information on the 26th MEU (SOC) in Iraq, visit them on the web at www.26meu.usmc.mil.