AL ASAD, Iraq -- The tasking is constant, and the daily flight schedule is packed with missions for one Army helicopter squadron flying with the Marine Corps in Iraq. A group of highly skilled pilots and crew chiefs are the reason for success.
The Virginia Army National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), Blackhawk crews are a unique asset for Marine forces here, and these crews have been carrying out their tasking for more than 10 months with exacting proficiency.
Planning and communication are the keys to successful missions for UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter crews in Iraq, and both begin before the aircraft engines are started on the ground.
“We’ll usually come in, get a brief on what mission we’re doing, find out our destinations and where we’re going,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Marvin R. McKenney, a pilot with 2/224. “We also receive an intelligence brief of any significant threats, anything going on that has changed.”
Once the pilots receive the day’s mission and intelligence briefs at their headquarters, one pilot goes with the crew chiefs to prepare the helicopter for the mission, while the other plans out the details of the mission ahead.
“One of the pilots will do the flight planning, which includes the route planning, how long it will take to get there, how much fuel is required and things like that,” said McKenney, a Richmond, Va., native. “At the same time, the other pilot is checking out the aircraft with the crew chiefs.”
With their route planned and the aircraft inspected and ready to go, the air crew gets together for a last set of briefs.
“We’ll do our individual briefs, one for the stick (a two-aircraft section). Then, we’ll brief with our aircraft’s crew,” said Staff Sgt. Troy G. Patterson, Blackhawk crew chief and door gunner. “After that we’ll get our weapons and ammo, conduct our combat checks and take off on the mission.”
In the briefs just before takeoff, the crew reasserts the importance of their continuous communication.
“There are a couple of things we brief every time before we fly: advocacy and assertion,” said McKenney. “Advocacy meaning, that if we’re flying along and you’re not saying anything then it means you’re fine with everything going on. Assertion meaning, if you're thinking something’s wrong speak up and say so.”
While in flight, the Blackhawk air crews have separate responsibilities as left and right side door gunners and pilot and pilot-in-command. They use an internal communications system to coordinate their actions in flight and most importantly, during landings and takeoffs.
“The Army calls it aircrew coordination. In the civilian sector, it’s cockpit resource management,” said McKenney. “The Army adopted the CRM and renamed it ACC. What it means is all the crewmembers have an equal say in what’s going on. It encourages everybody to speak up if something’s bothering them.”
“Both pilots do the same thing in flight. One has pilot-in-control duties, and the other has the pilot-not-in-control duties, which include the radios, navigation, and everything but flying the aircraft,” said McKenney. “However, they switch back and forth, and since there isn’t a lot of room up front to move around, it gives the one flying a chance to stretch because his feet are on the flight controls.”
With the pilot-in-control focusing on flying the aircraft, he may not see a danger to the aircraft approaching, so the squadron has a procedure in place to prevent any potential mishaps.
“We have the two challenge rule that the pilots use up front,” said McKenney. “If I say, ‘hey do you see that tree up front,’ and the other pilot doesn’t answer, I say again ‘do you see that tree up front,’ and if he still doesn’t answer, then I am going to take the controls so we avoid hitting it.”
Avoiding hitting deadly objects -- a task made more difficult by potential blinding dust kicked up by the helicopters’ turning blades -- is especially important when the helicopter is coming into a landing zone, according to McKenney and Patterson.
“Before we even take off and during the crew brief, we’re going to talk about some of the obstacles,” said McKenney. “Once you go past 10 O-clock and 2 O-clock off the nose of the aircraft, the crew chiefs are the pilot’s eyes back there. We can’t see anything. When we’re coming into the landing zone, the crew chiefs will call out the obstacles: trees, stumps, rocks. Once we’re clear of the obstacles, one of the crew chiefs will start calling out the dust cloud to let us know that we need to find something inside the rotor disk that’s not going to move, so we can land the aircraft.”
“As a crew chief and door gunner, our primary job is airspace surveillance and obstacle avoidance,” said Patterson, a Chesapeake, Va., native. “We don’t want anything to hit us, and we don’t want to hit anything. Of course, we’re there for the protection of the crew, passengers and aircraft, but it’s seldom that we are used as an offensive weapon.”
One advantage the 2/224 has over other units operating in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq, is the fact that many of the pilots and crew chiefs have been flying together for years.
“We have a great relationship with the pilots,” said Patterson. “We’re national guardsman, so we’ve been flying with some of the same guys for more than ten years.”
“I’ve been with a lot of these crew chiefs since I started flying Blackhawks in 1996,” said McKenney. “About 30 percent are new and all of them are hard workers and really professional at their job.”
Despite being a tight-knit group and having a cutting edge aircraft, Patterson credits the unit’s predeployment training for their mission’s success.
“We had to adjust as crew chiefs in terms of the different missions,” said Patterson. “Going through Exercise Desert Talon in Yuma, Ariz., helped us out a lot. Any unit that is coming out here, especially to work with the Marines should go. It was an outstanding exercise. We learned a lot from it, especially Marine Corps terminology. They use acronyms for everything. We use them, too, but theirs are different. We built a really good relationship with everybody we came out here with, while there.”
With their deployment coming to a close soon, Patterson believes their mission with the Marines has been a complete success thus far.
“Our missions can be anything around here, especially with the Blackhawks,” said Patterson. “It could be a detainee lift, a raid or a VIP flight. That’s a result of the aircraft being a medium-sized bird, and it has a ton of power for its size. It’s dependable. I don’t think we’ve ever been late and have only dropped one or two missions in ten months.”
For McKenney, the deployment has been a summit for a long-time flyer, challenging his skills and surprising him at times.
“When we first got out here, it was the most demanding flying I’ve done in my life,” said McKenney. “The first two months in country were purely night-vision goggle flying. It definitely took time getting used to; I think all the pilots out here would sing the praises of the heads up display inside the goggles. It has everything that’s on the instrument panel that I need to know. I learned to expect the unexpected. Dust storms can pop up out of nowhere, and I was lucky to get caught up in only one.”