TIRANE-RINAS, Albania -- The powerful blades of two CH-53E "Super Stallion" helicopters whipped loudly overhead as the Helicopter Support Team attached four 500-gallon fuel containers to the bottom of an aircraft May 18, in support of the ongoing, bilateral military training exercise in Albania.
With the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operating Capable) operating in vast training areas throughout the country, this method of fuel delivery is key to keeping vehicles and aviation assets moving throughout the training area.
"Because of the terrain limitations, long distances between training sites and narrow roads, we had to rely heavily upon our HSTs and the [Aviation Combat Element] for the bulk of our food, water and ammunition deliveries," said Lt. Col. John R. Hahn, Commanding Officer, MEU Service Support Group-26. "This was a very challenging environment for our HSTs and they performed very well in keeping our supplies flowing," said the Camden, Del., native.
Delivering fuel to two forward arming and refueling points at the Biza training range (elevation up to 4,000 ft.) and on the shore of the Adriatic, the helicopter support teams fulfill a critical role in keeping these fuel bladders full.
"Its fun being under the birds like that," said Sgt. John Lammons, the HST chief. "You look up and the bottom of it is right in your face and the power of the rotor wash is something you really can't describe," said the Savannah, Ga. native.
While hovering barely seven feet from the ground, a "Super Stallion" can generate up to 100 volts of static electricity, said Lammons. It is up to the HST Marines to ensure that this dangerous electricity injures no one in the team.
The first Marine to touch the aircraft is the static man, who attaches a ground wire to the hook under the aircraft to divert the electricity. Next, two Marines attach the chains that hold the cargo. Finally, the four legmen hold each chain to make sure that it doesn't get tangled as the aircraft takes off.
While half of the Landing Support Detachment, MSSG-26, has done this type of heliborne movement for nearly three years; some of the team members are activated reservists with varying degrees of experience as to the specifics of their jobs.
"They all have adapted well," said Cpl. Josh Bliss, an assistant HST leader from Tahlequah, Okla. "They are still a little green, but we rotate them in so they learn every job."
During each supply lift, the crew tries to get the cargo hooked onto the aircraft in less than four minutes, Lammons said. If the pilot can't keep the helicopter steady due to strong winds or other adverse conditions, and the HST can't hook up, then they wave the aircraft off.
This is a difficult way to move cargo and fuel and safety is always an important aspect of any training evolution. The ability to successfully hook up a fuel bladder or large pallet of cargo to a hovering helicopter depends on a number of factors, including the experience of the HST and of the helicopter's pilot and aircrew. As with any operation, practice is the key.
Having completed the lift, the LSD turned its focus to its many other missions yet to complete. They are in charge of manifesting personnel and cargo for vehicle and air transportation throughout the training area. On the beach, the detachment manifests personnel and cargo for transportation via surface to the awaiting ships.
Through the diligent efforts of Lammons, Bliss and the other members of the HSTs, the 26th MEU (SOC) has been able to continue training throughout Albania without concerns for fuel, food, water or ammunition.
"What we do in everyday life in terms of combat service support is the same as what we do in combat," said Hahn. "The way that we deliver food, water and ammunition doesn't change and our Marines and Sailors performed well refining those skills."
To find out more information on the "movers and shakers" of MSSG-26, as well as the rest of the 26th MEU (SOC), visit them on the web at www.26meu.usmc.mil.