UDAIRI RANGE, Kuwait -- The 'Black Knights' of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-264 (Reinforced), 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, broadened the capabilities of their squadron with a division leader qualification, here, recently.
The qualification tested the abilities of Capt. Justin W. May, a CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter pilot with the squadron, to handle and direct not only his aircraft, but an additional two CH-46s in a scenario that simulated a real-world extraction of troops from the desert.
The evaluation, which May passed with flying colors, capped a three-month effort to increase his authorized level of in-flight command and certified him capable of leading flights of three or more CH-46s, said Maj. Jan M. January, HMM-264 (Rein) special projects officer and Cleveland native.
According to January, May's road to becoming a division leader encompassed months of careful study and three evaluated flight exercises, including a night evolution and the final evaluation conducted May 1.
The final evaluation was designed to challenge May's ability to manage a division of CH-46s while simultaneously focusing on the numerous tasks a division leader is responsible for.
The in-flight duties included navigating, locating the landing zone where the Marines were to be extracted, maintaining channels of communication between the aircraft, and directing the close-air support efforts of a pair of the squadron's AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters that flew in support of the evaluation.
Accomplishing these tasks was no small feat, especially considering the difficulty of navigating a largely featureless desert using only a map and clock, while locating a landing zone whose only distinguishing mark was an orange panel measuring a mere three-feet by four-feet in dimension, said January.
"As a division leader, you always have to maintain situational awareness," said January. "Not only for your aircraft, but you also have to know where all the planes you are responsible for are (throughout the duration of the mission)."
Solid planning and communication is the solution to these challenges, said May, who hails from Poquoson, Va.
"It's all based off leadership, and it is definitely a team effort," he said.
The expansive desert training areas here provided an ideal location to test May's readiness and skills, said January.
"There are some awesome (terrain features) here that we can use to build scenarios that challenge our pilots," he said.
He added that the squadron has taken full advantage of the opportunity, qualifying seven pilots, including May, to advance their flight designations since arriving here April 23.
By qualifying as a division leader, May moved up a rung on a career ladder that all Marine pilots must ascend. Marine aviators progress through four levels of in-flight command, with the qualifying pilot's degree of responsibility for mission assets increasing with each step.
"These qualifications are important to our younger pilots," he explained. "It allows them to develop professionally while increasing our total skill level at the same time."
By better training its pilots and continuously striving to advance their flight designations, the squadron places itself in a position to best provide aviation support to the MEU's amphibious operations, said January.
The capabilities of HMM-264 (Rein) help make the MEU a force of choice for response to an array of potential contingency missions throughout the region. The continued development of division leaders within the squadron enhances the MEU's readiness as strategic reserve within U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility.
The 26th MEU is in the fourth month of a routine, scheduled deployment that began Jan. 6 as the landing force for the Bataan Expeditionary Strike Group.
In addition to HMM-264 (Rein.), the MEU is composed of its Command Element; Battalion Landing Team 2/2; and Combat Logistics Battalion-26.
For more on the MEU, including news, videos and contact information, visit www.usmc.mil/26thmeu.