AL ASAD, Iraq -- The CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter is a very versatile aircraft, as it can lift up to 16 tons and fly indefinitely with its aerial refueling probe.
While in use with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 361 in the Al Anbar province of Iraq, the helicopter is usually focused on cargo and troop transportation. However, the occasional situation comes along for the massive machine to delve into the missions it was meant for.
"Heavy lift is the mission of this squadron," said Maj. Andrew P. Albano, CH-53E pilot, HMH-361, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward). "The Marine Corps has medium-lift and heavy-lift platforms that are distinguished by the amount of weight they can carry. We consider the CH-53E a heavy-lift platform."
Although a heavy lift refers to the helicopter carrying more than 10,000 pounds, it isn't classified as a normal lift for the Marines conducting the mission.
"It's not a routine external lift of water, ammunition or humvees," said Lance Cpl. Anthony D. Garner, crew chief, HMH-361. "The heavy lift is going to take quite a bit of planning, as far as power and weight. We have to go out to do operational power checks to make sure the aircraft can handle the load, as well as make sure it is light enough to pick up the load.
"Another thing you will have to look at is your harnesses and straps, as well as your heavy lifting equipment," the 20-year-old native of Middleton, Idaho, added. "You have to make sure the equipment will handle the load. It can't be ripped or torn, as that has the potential to cause a breakage."
In Iraq, the squadron must plan with a variety of units to conduct just one heavy lift outside of their base defenses.
"You have a little more complex environment here," said Albano, a 33-year-old native of Omaha, Neb. "The threat is there. Explosive ordnance disposal can be involved. A ground force is needed to secure the landing zone. You also have a Helicopter Support Team that is hooking us up to whatever it is we're lifting, so there are a lot of moving parts."
A heavy lift is the one mission that requires the expertise across a spectrum of people, as everything has to be inspected and checked several times prior to conducting the mission.
"There are so many variables whether we are lifting in the day or nighttime, or if the load is up on a plateau or down in a valley," said Cpl. Daniel L. Chewey, crew chief, HMH-361. "The strapping of the load, the harness and the way the load is hooked up is inspected. After the load is hooked up, we have to wait for the Marines on the ground to clear off. If something were to go wrong, it would go wrong fast."
Overall, the ability to conduct heavy lift operations provides the squadron with several unique abilities that only they can accomplish.
"It allows us the capability to extract entire helicopters," concluded Albano, a Creighton University graduate. "It gives us some flexibility, as we can provide solutions to problems that wouldn't be possible any other way. It's a capstone mission for us."