KARMA, Iraq -- Under a baking Iraqi sun, beads of sweat roll down a Marine's face as his eyes slowly scan the surrounding fields of tall grass, looking for insurgent forces that could ambush him and his fellow Marines' dismounted patrol. Suddenly, the thumping sound of helicopters breaks through the noise of his beating pulse and a squawking radio in his ears. Air support has arrived.
Like guardian angels, the sharp-eyed crews of a UH-1N Huey and AH-1W Super Cobra with Marine Light Attack Squadron 169, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, use their bird's eye perspective, flying just above treetops or thousands of feet in the air to provide reconnaissance on the convoy's route through the streets and fields of Karma, May 11.
"Our mission was to fly in the vicinity of Karma, Iraq, in support of the dismounted patrols that were throughout the city," said 1st Lt. Brian P. Brassieur, a Huey pilot. "We were looking for any improvised explosive devices on the roads or any military-aged males digging holes in the road and anything (insurgents) might be doing to disrupt our patrols."
The squadron's ability to successfully support the Marine ground forces on patrol begins at the squadron's airfield in Al Taqaddum.
"Before every flight, and at the beginning of our training, we always do cockpit coordination and crew briefs, as well as a section brief," said Capt. Brian J. Crawford, a Huey pilot and Laurel, Md., native. "First, the crews from both aircraft get together and conduct a thorough brief on how we're going to conduct that flight. Then, myself, the other pilot and the two crew chiefs will sit down and talk about the conduct of operations for the day. It's everything from what we expect to see, what we expect to execute and all the communications associated with accomplishing that."
Once in the air, the two helicopters sped toward Karma. The two pilots in the Super Cobra and the two pilots and two crew chiefs in the Huey kept their eyes open, alert to the threat posed by surface-to-air missiles and gunfire.
"Communication is the key for these kinds of missions, because without proper communication no one knows what's going on," said Lance Cpl. Justin W. Ahlers, a Huey crew chief and West Bend, Wis., native. "We all might see pieces of a whole, but we won't be able to put it all together without communication to make the picture complete. That allows us to accomplish the mission more effectively."
The desert landscape surrounding their airbase quickly passed below Ahlers and the other Marines in the helicopters before turning into lush fields and canals, as they passed over the land surrounding the Euphrates River and approached Karma.
"Once we got in the vicinity of where we were supposed to be, we contacted the forward air controller on the ground," said Brassieur, a Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., native. "He is apprised of the whole situation because he is right in it. He tells us what's going on, what he needs us to do, where his position is and how we can support him."
Through coordination, the ground and air Marines can form an accurate picture of what lies ahead down the streets of Karma. The information flow between the forward air controller on the ground and the two helicopters is the key to the success of the convoy escort and the safety of the Marines on the ground.
"Marine aviation's overall role is to support ground troops, and in Karma, we were providing immediate, overhead close air support and reconnaissance to them," said 1st Lt. Kyle R. Vandegiesen, a Super Cobra pilot and North Allteboro, Mass., native. "The grunts can only see a couple hundred meters around themselves. We have the vantage point of 500 to 1,000 feet above the ground."
According to Vandegiesen, the view from above is crucial to the success of their mission.
"The key to any battle is situational awareness," he said. "Whoever has it is going to win. If you can see the enemy then you've got him, that's what we provide."
The Vipers ability to provide an "eye in the sky" for the ground troops is a vital part of the Marine aviation mission here.
"When I go over a station, when I'm over Karma, I want to look out for those Marines, that's what I've been trained to do and that's what I'm going to do," said Brassieur. "The Marine Corps revolves around the grunts on the ground. We're just here to support them. That's what we're here to do."