AL ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq -- Pilots and crews of Marine CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 466 began their first flight operations here Feb. 28.
These are the first flight operations in Iraq to take place for Marine Aircraft Group 16 since its return to the country after the main combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
For the squadron, however, this deployment is something new, said Maj. Roger McFadden, executive officer, HMM-466.
"This is the first time (HMM-466) has deployed to Iraq as a squadron," McFadden said. "We have had personnel who came here before who were part of different units at the time."
MAG-16 returned to Iraq in February and is tasked with the logistics flow for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Western Iraq.
"We bring the Marines the beans, bullets and band-aids," McFadden explained. "Most of the flight operations will originate through here."
The squadron will perform the same operations the flight crews have trained for, said Cpl. Joshua Coale, crew chief and weapons and tactics instructor, HMH-466.
"We can do a wide range of jobs including convoy support, re-supply, heavy lift and even raids," he said. "Because of our range, we can also do border patrol along the Syrian border."
As of now, space is the big issue aboard the air station, McFadden said.
"It will get better, but this is the inflow point of all Wing assets. Because the Army is still here, there is less space for now."
For the time being, the squadron is keeping itself busy conducting area "fans" to get pilots familiar with the area surrounding the air station, McFadden said. The Army still has the official mission, so this allows Marines the time to get to know the area and ensure all planes are in good condition, he added.
"We are still in the process of getting our spaces workable," he stated. "It would've been a real detriment to try and do both at the same time."
When MAG-16 officially assumes control of the area of operations, there are many obstacles they are prepared to encounter during their time in Iraq.
"There are many hazards that we'll face out here," Coale said. "Things like sand, anti-aircraft missile(s) and smalls arms fire."
To prepare for these dangers, most of the Marines participated in a new training package called Exercise Desert Talon at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., which was designed specifically to train 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing Marines before this rotation of forces in Iraq.
McFadden said that the exercise has sharpened the flight crews' skills, but time will tell if the training will apply in full.
Regardless, pilots have started flying and crews have started observing the landscape for anything and everything.
"Flying should be pretty much normal, but our 'look out doctrine' has increased," Coale said. "There is a threat out there that keeps us in the windows."
Coale said the pilots and crews need to be ready to assume command of the area of operations from the Army.
"We have to be on our toes," he concluded. "We don't know exactly what to expect, so we have to keep eyes out."