MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- As the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit worked its way through a demanding and extensive Certification Exercise aboard the ships of the Bataan Strike Group Nov. 30 to Dec. 9, the unit got a boost to the finish line from the 'Black Knights' of its Aviation Combat Element, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-264 (Reinforced).
As a reinforced, or composite, squadron, HMM-264 (Rein.) made nearly every Marine aviation asset available to the MEU commander in a well-trained, highly deployable package.
The squadron took to the skies and supported nearly every one of the MEU's real-world styled missions during CERTEX, including a humanitarian assistance mission, a long-range helicopter raid, a tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel, as well as numerous casualty evacuations and close air supports missions, said Maj. Jan January, the squadron's operations officer.
The successful execution of a very complex long-range helicopter raid was a testament to the extensive capabilities of the squadron. The mission drew on both fixed-wing and rotary-wing assets to move troops and equipment, set up a forward arming and refueling point, provide surveillance of the designated target and maintain overhead security for the Marines on the ground.
A key point of CERTEX for the squadron was validating its ability to operate in harmony with the MEU's rapid response planning process, allowing HMM-264 (Rein.) to put its aircraft aloft nearly three days faster than the squadron's standard planning procedures.
"We have to count on a lot of (standing operating procedures) to facilitate our planning process, or we would not be able to execute so rapidly," said January.
"That is why this exercise was so important to us," he continued. "We have to finalize this highly-tuned war machine before we can commence combat operations."
Continuing to become more familiar with the Navy aviation components from the Bataan Strike Group was another important focus of CERTEX for the squadron, said Maj. Rick F. Neitzey, the squadron's director of safety and standardization.
"The more we work together with our Navy counterparts, the more we form the relationships that will help us accomplish the missions that we need to," he said.
During CERTEX, the strike group supported the MEU with a launching point for aircraft and aviation logistical support.
The Marine support elements involved in the exercise played their own part in the squadron's success.
The MEU's logistics element, Combat Logistics Battalion-26, and the squadron's internal support elements served the squadron well, operating at a level that exceeded the unit's expectations, said Neitzey.
"They're doing a fantastic job," he said. "They're going over and above the pace we've been expecting."
The squadron needed every bit of the superior logistical support as the exercise provided challenging obstacles to overcome, said January.
"This particular CERTEX was very challenging because of the initial bad weather we encountered," he explained. "Additionally, the constant operational tempo and the complexity of the missions have kept us very busy."
The entire squadron's outstanding performance during the exercise in the face of these challenges surprised neither Neitzey nor January, who agree that the months of comprehensive training the squadron had accomplished leading up to CERTEX served it well.
"We conducted a lot of training before we became a composite squadron back in June," said January. "With that being said, we have still had to train very hard the last six months before we conducted the evaluated exercises."
The demanding and rapid pace of conducting operations in a real-world environment such as CERTEX brings out the best in Marine aviation, he continued.
"It has been fantastic to really exercise all the capabilities of the [squadron] in a very fluid and fast-paced environment," he said.
The 26th MEU wrapped up its demanding, six-month pre-deployment training program with the completion of CERTEX.
Up next for the unit is a scheduled early 2007 deployment in support of the Global War on Terrorism.
For more on the 26th MEU, including news, videos and contact information, visit www.usmc.mil/26thmeu.