CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait -- Marines from two of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit's major subordinate elements teamed up to perform a difficult nighttime training operation here.
The Marines from Combat Logistics Battalion-26's Helicopter Support Team (HST) worked together with CH-46E Sea Knight pilots and crew members from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-264 (Reinforced) to perform external-load lifts in darkness.
Capt. Jim J. Purekal, a CH-46E pilot in HMM-264 (Rein), said the crews practice the external lifting in order to maintain proficiency in the tricky technique.
"We practice it in case we are asked to conduct supply missions to places we are not able to land," he said.
Performing the lifts requires split-second decision-making and intensive coordination between the two teams; one on the ground and one in the air.
While the pilots are the ones flying the aircraft, the crew chief in the back of the helicopter is the one who actually sees what is going on underneath the aircraft and directs the pilots onto the target, Purekal said.
"The crew chief guides us in and picks up on any drift," said Purekal. "He is the one calling the shots."
The whole operation is tricky on even the best of days, and it becomes exponentially more difficult when other factors are introduced into the process.
Maneuvering aircraft in the dark is a common skill among Marine pilots, but hovering a helicopter 15 feet above the HST Marines while attempting to pick up a 1,700-pound concrete-block requires resolute concentration.
"When you wear (night-vision goggles), you lose depth-perception, peripheral vision, and contrast," Purekal said.
It wasn't any easier for the crew on the ground, who fought a veritable sandstorm of dust and rocks every time a helicopter came in to pick up a load.
Cpl. Ashley B. Fuqua, a member of the HST, said nighttime missions make the whole process more difficult.
The crew on the ground doesn't have the benefit of night vision equipment to aid them, and must react quickly when the helicopters bear down on them.
"(Night missions) are difficult because you can't see anything until (the aircraft) are right on top of you," he said.
Fuqua said the training went well and allowed the crews to work refine their techniques and procedures for the night operations.
The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit is utilizing the facilities at Udairi Range, Kuwait to exercise core capabilities and refresh skills. The training is designed to ensure the MEU's continued operational readiness to conduct an array of potential missions as the strategic reserve for U.S. Central Command.
The 26th MEU departed North Carolina Jan. 6 on a routine deployment as the landing force with the Bataan Strike Group.