ABOARD USS IWO JIMA --
If you have been a Marine anytime since the start of the Vietnam War, you have seen revolutionary and evolutionary changes in the Corps. New technology, gear, weapons and vehicles have been assimilated and then replaced. But since 1964, one thing hasn’t changed.
The CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter has served as the primary medium-lift helicopter for the Marine Corps since its introduction to the fleet, and despite over 40 years of improvements and upgrades, its distinctive shape would be familiar to anyone from multiple generations of servicemembers. It has been around so long that it has become the standard of measurement by which aircraft on flight decks are arranged.
The CH-46, or phrog, as it is called affectionately by many, is now approaching something many long-serving veterans eventually see, retirement.
“We are the last active duty, East Coast phrog squadron. We’ve reached a milestone,” said Lt. Col. Mike D. Snyder, a phrog pilot since 1993 and commanding officer of the 26th MEU’s Aviation Combat Element, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-264 (Rein.).
The Sea Knight, a fixture on the flight deck of every Marine Air Ground Task force deployed aboard naval vessels since the 1970s, will soon be replaced by the MV-22 Osprey as the primary medium-lift aircraft for the Corps.
Just because this would prove to be its last float, however, didn’t mean the aircraft came up with any kind of short timer’s disease.
A month into the MEU’s deployment, Central Command sent the MEU’s CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopters to Iraq, leaving the Sea Knights as the primary support aircraft for the next six months, a job they performed well, according to Snyder.
“The 46s stepped up and fulfilled all the requirements without the 53s here,” he said.
What’s especially impressive is the fact that the aircraft fulfilling those missions are, in many cases, often twice as old as the pilots flying them and crews keeping them in the air.
HMM-264’s youngest aircraft hit the fleet in September of 1970. It’s oldest in October of 1966. Between just those two aircraft, disregarding all others in the squadron, they have over 20, 660 hours flown.
Colonel Mark J. Desens, commanding officer of the 26th MEU and a CH-46 pilot since 1987, said the Marine Corps definitely got something right with the Sea Knight by continuing to maintain and upgrade the aircraft despite the fact that it was supposedly going to be replaced in the 90’s.
“They told me in flight school that I would probably only be flying the 46 for three years before the Osprey would replace it, and now here I am as the MEU commander, my 53s are taken away, and the 46, old and tired, carries the MEU,” he said.
Both Desens and Snyder both said that while the Osprey will replace the CH-46 in the fleet, it can’t replace the phrog in everything it does.
“The CH-46 is a proven technology. It is one of the most reliable aircraft in the inventory. It is stable and provides the perfect platform for things like fastroping, which will be problematical with the Osprey. Also, it is metal. Which means if it gets shot full of holes it is an easy fix, while the MV-22 will not be so easy,” Desens said.
“Even though we are replacing the aircraft, it is still fully capable of performing the mission,” he said. “(The Osprey) is not a replacement for the mission; it is a replacement for the aircraft.”
The seminal moment for the aircraft during the float came as USS Iwo Jima passed under the Peace Bridge spanning the Suez Canal carrying Sea Knights for the last time. It was a poignant moment for some, while for others it just represents progress.
Snyder said it was a little bittersweet to know it would be the last time.
“It’s kind of sad. 46s have been around so long and they’ve been such a stable workhorse it’s hard to see them go after flying them for almost 16 years,” he said.
Desens said that while he can understand why some will miss it, “It would be a little like bemoaning a horse and buggy. Marines tend to be nostalgic, but in actuality we are innovators.”
It really wasn’t sad, the phrog has served well. She has earned and deserves her sunset. I thought to myself, ‘How cool is it to see the last East Coast phrogs headed under the bridge?’”
At the same time, he acknowledged how important the CH-46 is in the history and lore of the Corps.
“How many warriors have been in the back of a 46; these 46s?” he asked. “Vietnam in the 70s, Beirut in the 80s, all of the (Noncombatant Evacuation Operations), Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan. There are generations of Marines that have ridden in them still around.”
He and Snyder were also quick to point out that even though the 46 will no longer go on MEU deployments, it’s not going away completely for awhile.
“It will still be around for seven or eight more years, and still be receiving its modifications,” said Snyder.
Desens put it succinctly. “I think the last 46 pilot may have been born, but not yet commissioned.”