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Maj. Edward Rodgers (seated right side of aircraft) and Capt. Eric D. Gregory taxi aircraft number 33, a CH-53D Sea Stallion, onto the flight line for a flight at Al Asad, Iraq, June 14. Rodgers is the maintenance officer with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, and Gregory is the ground safety officer with HMH-463.

Photo by Lance Cpl. James B. Hoke

Pilots meet challenges of flying in combat environment

22 Jun 2006 | Lance Cpl. James B. Hoke

Blasting off into the wild, blue yonder can seem a little exciting while viewing it through a TV screen, and it can be fairly exciting for the men and women who pilot the enormous CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters for the Marine Corps.

The process they go through each day to fly, however, can be far less than thrilling, as the responsibilities and missions they face have to be taken with the utmost importance.

"A pilot's main mission is the safe execution of the assigned mission," said Maj. David S. Rentz, executive officer, Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. "The pilot in command is responsible for everything that happens on that mission, and to make sure it is done in conjunction with the directives."

Beginning each day or night, depending on which shift the pilot has, the Marine pilots with HMH-463 rise out of their racks and make way towards their flight brief.

"We get up about an hour before the brief and view all of the assigned tasks for that day," said Rentz, a 40-year-old native of Pittsburgh. "Once that is all together, the section (leaders) provide a brief to each section."

Through the brief, the pilots listen intently to the weather conditions, the number of flights and anything else that will have an affect on their daily routine.

"The thing that the pilots need to keep in mind, and that they do keep in mind during the planning process, is where the missions are going," said Rentz, a graduate of University of Pittsburgh. "We look at all aspects of what the conditions are, where the enemy is and the area that we are going to in order to make sure the mission will get accomplished."

Pilots are often times displayed in movies as having a "need for speed" or only having the mission of flying their aircraft. However, being a pilot and playing one are two entirely different things.

"Hollywood can really play it up, however, in some aspects, they are pretty dead on," said Capt. Shayne M. Frey, pilot training officer, and weapons and tactics instructor, HMH-463. "I consider it like driving a race car everyday. It's a great job; I love it. They have the Hollywood perspective on it, and we have the realism perspective on it.

"We have to adapt to the situations that are out there -- the ever-changing environment," the 33-year-old Lancaster, Pa., native added. "Every single response or action we have definitely has a counteraction. I have a crew of five on board, and from engine start to shut down, it is my responsibility to safely complete the mission. If something should go wrong, the realism will definitely be there."

Although the pilots have the reality of their job to face every day, they still have to remain sharp, as they are required to fly a lot more than what they are originally used to.

"The environment we are in is an unforgiving environment," said Frey, a Pennsylvania State University graduate. "Mistakes could cost people their lives. The biggest challenge is being on your A-game every single flight, and not letting your guard down."

According to Frey, losing focus is also an issue that pilots have to be aware of and avoid.

"You have to combat complacency," he said. "We change our shifts. We will fly three weeks on night shifts and change to days. There are rules in place that we don't fly more than six days in a row. However, we even go above that and try to fly two days on and one day off. It's a marathon, not a sprint."

Each time a helicopter takes off, it is a team effort that makes it happen. The pilots have others to look to for support with their job and mission.

They also have to deal with the stress and differences of flying in a combat environment.

"The threat out here is the interesting one," said Rentz. "It's different than what we have been training to where you are doing a specific assault on a hardened objective where the enemy is known to be in a specific location. Here, he's not. It keeps the pilots on their toes, because we don't know when or where they will see a threat pop up."

Although the threats to aircraft are present, air travel is considered somewhat safer than the opposing methods of transportation.

"We are here to move troops and supplies everywhere they need to go," said Rentz. "A lot of the pilots take a good bit of pride in the fact that every Marine who moves on one of our helicopters is a Marine who doesn't have to be on a ground convoy that is subject to (improvised explosive devices)."

While the pilots help their passengers dodge dangers when moving throughout the theater, they also have to rely on the aircrew to help them during the flights.

"They trust us to put a safe aircraft out there," said Sgt. Melvin A. Carter, crew chief instructor, HMH-463. "There is already a baseline that everyone should be at. They have a lot of responsibility on their hands, so if we are able to pick up a lot of the slack that the pilots would normally do, it makes it that much smoother.

"There are those basic principles of trust and respect that still carry on out there," the 30-year-old native of York, Pa., added. "The crew chief-pilot relationship, in my opinion, is a special relationship. There are not too many places in the Marine Corps that have that direct communication where there is no filter in between."

According to Frey, the pilots wouldn't have a mission to accomplish without the help of their squadron.

"I wouldn't get to fly without the hard work and dedication of the maintainers and the aircrew," Frey concluded. "Those guys are hitting the deck running everyday. In this environment, they are performing superbly. They are awesome. Without them, I wouldn't have a job. They don't get the recognition that they sometimes deserve, but they are, no kidding, the backbone of what we are doing out here. They make it happen."
3rd Marine Aircraft Wing