Airborne guardians: HMLA-169 escort missions support convoy operations

10 Sep 2004 | Cpl. Paul Leicht

The belief in guardian angels can be traced back throughout antiquity. From Babylonian and Assyrian monuments, to the Bible and more modern times, their mission has been to serve as protectors, with a special charge to deliver others from danger.For Marines traveling about the hostile combat environment of Iraq, having a sentinel over their shoulder armed with rockets, missile launchers and machine guns can be a reassuring presence.Particularly in the case of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 169, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, providing ground and airborne escort to safeguard passage is an aspect of their operational doctrine that has not gone unappreciated.Packing a huge psychological value, the squadron's escorts are considered priceless by fellow Marines."We like having them around," said Lt.Col. Thomas M. Doman, executive officer, MWSG-37. "A convoy incurs a lot of added risk when traveling without a gunship and it is nice to know they are overhead."Doman added that from their commanding officer, Col. Juan G. Ayala, on down, when his unit's Marines hear a gunship's 'whoop, whoop' thumping overhead it really makes a big difference..Working in mixed sections to provide security from the air, the 'Vipers' fly two types of lethal helicopter gunships: the AH-1W Super Cobra and the UH-1N Huey."In addition to close air support, we fly ground escort missions for convoys all over Iraq," said Capt. John J. Bancroft, UH-1N pilot, HMLA-169. "We primarily look out for ambushes, IEDs and provide navigational assistance for the forces on the ground."For (HMLA-169), visual (reconnaissance) is an implied task," he added. "At night we use (forward-looking infrared sensors) to help detect targets, disturbed ground, rocket tubes, rocks along roadsides; pretty much anything that might be a danger to the convoys. If we see it, we contact the forces on the ground and move in to neutralize the threat."The 31-year-old Oxford, N.Y., native and Naval Academy graduate noted that the Huey gunship has some special traits that make it well suited for escort missions."The Huey's strength is that it has crew-served weapons with an almost 180 degree field of fire on either side, including aft quadrant defense capability," said Bancroft. "In addition the Huey can put down quickly and pick up casualties on the ground if necessary after an IED attack."Working together, the Huey and the Super Cobra provide "mutual supportability" as a section for escorting ground convoys; however, the Super Cobra also has another important responsibility in the air."Foremost, the Cobra's job in the airborne escort role is to protect (medical evacuation helicopters) from any ground threats, because the Cobra can keep up with them more easily than the slower Huey," said Capt. Fenwick, AH-1W pilot, HMLA-169. "The Super Cobra's armament is a big deterrent against small arms fire from the ground. If insurgents want to try and take a shot at the MEDEVACs with us alongside them, they are playing with fire."Fenwick, a 30-year-old native of Camp Hill, Pa., added that with more time in the air 'Viper' pilots gain an ever-increasing familiarity with the Iraqi desert terrain and use it to their advantage when looking for suspicious activity during escort missions."Unlike the open desert, the hazards related to flying escort missions are compounded over urban areas," said Fenwick. "We fly low and fast, because -- even for us -- anything can be a threat, so we try to avoid certain areas as much as possible."