Author: Werling, Nichole R
Date published: January 1, 2011
Journal code: NLAN
Afghanistan is rugged and severe, with cavern-filled mountains rising in jagged peaks and blistering sandstorms blowing across flat desert. Temperatures range from sweltering hot to freezing cold, and even getting electricity can be a challenge. It is truly one of the earth's most demanding testing grounds.
MCAS New River's VMM-261 has the distinction of being the first MV-22B Osprey squadron to operate in this harsh land.
The squadrons main body arrived at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 8 November 2009 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and returned home in July 2010. The Marines stayed at Camp Leatherneck, while the 12 Ospreys were stationed at Bastion Airfield, a 50-mile bus transit away.
From the beginning, it was obvious much work needed to be done.
"We deployed into a truly austere environment," said Maj. Daniel Smith, VMM-261's aircraft maintenance officer.
"One of the challenges was creating a workspace," said Sgt. Juri Theodore, a crew chief with the squadron. "Because we arrived to an open desert with just some matting, we had to set up all of our work areas in tents. They were still building the hangar when we got there. Everything stayed out on the [flight] line."
Even finishing the hangar did not completely solve the problem, because only two or three aircraft could fit inside the structure at once. The remaining aircraft stayed outside where they were pounded by sandstorms.
"The most difficult part of working in that environment was the constant sand," said Capt. Wayland Labhart, a squadron operations officer and corrosion control officer for the deployment. Tt would hang in the air like fog. It really limited our visibility."
The Marines rarely got much of a chance to rest and recharge because maintenance for both day and night crews was conducted in daily 12-hour shifts to combat the sand and to stay flying.
"It was heavy maintenance," Smith said. "Every day aircraft had to be wiped down, cleaned down, multiple times - at the end of every flight, before every flight, every actuator, every switch, everything. Every screen had to be cleaned up, constantly, because of the sand that would accumulate on it."
Despite the best efforts of the Marines, the accumulation of sand ultimately began to lead to some minor component failure issues. According to Theodore, however, the component failures were something the Marines handled promptly and successfully.
Keeping mission readiness foremost in their minds, the Marines had plans in place to ensure an aircraft was always available to go. In the event an Osprey was down, the Marines would immediately go to the backup aircraft. Even when multiple aircraft were used as backups, all were repaired and mission capable within hours of being down.
Labhart said the Marine Corps ensured the squadron received needed parts with minimal delay. "We were the focus of efforts of the Marine Corps for parts issues," he said. "Anything we needed showed up." It was not long before the Ospreys began to show their usefulness by being able to go above the troublesome sand.
"The beauty of our aircraft was that we would get up above the sand, so we would only have it in the terminal environment, the taking off and landing, so when we transited, it was a lot easier," Labhart said.
Flying was not the only time sand proved to be an issue, however.
Because the MV-22 kicks up the most amount of dirt and sand of any rotary-wing aircraft, landing was always a challenge. And darkness added further complications.
"Flying at night in Afghanistan is by far the worst night flying I have ever experienced," Smith said. "It was worse than anything in Kuwait or Iraq. Because of the sand and because there are no lights and very little electricity in Afghanistan, everything was black."
Smith said that quite often the first time the ground was visible would be when the aircraft was within feet of it. "It was challenging for the guys in back, trying to call us into the landing zones, and challenging for the pilots trying to land the aircraft safely," he said.
Theodore agreed nights could be treacherous. One of his first night flights was flown during a storm and he was forced to overnight at a forward operating base. He had no idea that a massive mountain was close to him, because the dark and the rain completely obscured his view during the flight.
"If you weren't watching your cockpit displays and using the [digital map], you could have run into the side of the mountain," he said.
Even though the mountainous terrain did create obstacles to overcome, Labhart believed there was a more immediate threat to air safety. Air traffic, especially in the Marjah area, was another reason the aircrews had to maintain constant *vigilance. Communication between the civilian contracted aircraft and coalition forces was minimal.
"One of our biggest problems was watching for those guys," Labhart said. "Because they weren't talking to anyone and most of the time you didn't see them coming. They [civilian contract aircraft] were light colored and blended in with the sand."
Whether it was moving personnel, gear, or supplies from an established forward-operating base like Camp Bastion to other bases being established farther in the mountains, to transporting senior military and government officials throughout the combat zone, the Osprey squadron carried out all missions successfully.
"We probably did 20 named missions," Labhart said. "They could vary anywhere between taking 15 to 20 recon Marines and putting them in close to a zone, or taking a division of aircraft, making two trips and putting in 150 to 160 in the zones."
During a mission near the Iranian border, an Osprey took geological survey employees to look for minerals in an area more than two hours away from Camp Bastion. During the hour-long dig, the Osprey orbited over the survey team, securing the area from any immediate threats. When it was time for the return trip, the aircraft landed to let them board and flew straight back to Bastion.
"Nobody could have done that but the V-22," said Smith. "Absolutely nobody."
Smith, Labhart, and Theodore all believe the Osprey has proven its usefulness and that the 2009-2010 deployment was a major step in the integration of the MV-22B into all aspects of Marine combat operations.
"There is a larger percentage of the Marine Corps that understands how to work and how to utilize the V-22," said Smith. "We don't generally think about it, but having Marines who*are familiar with just loading and offloading a V-22 is a big deal. It takes a lot of time and can affect the success of the mission"
There were some admitted bumps in the beginning of the Osprey's career, which made some hesitant that the tiltrotor aircraft has a place in the Marine Corps. Thinking like that is a mistake in judgment, Smith argues, and the successful deployment proves it.
"The distance we can fly is the key benefit to using the Osprey versus a helicopter," he said. "There was a particular mission to Kabul, where we picked some people up. Kabul is a two-hour flight for a V-22. We picked up some VIPs, landed in a poppy field in the middle of Marjah to drop them off, and flew back to Camp Bastion. It was two hours each way."
If a MV-22B had not been used, a C- 130 would have been called in - necessitating more time spent and more delays added on the mission.
"We would have taken off from Kandahar, flown two hours to Kabul, picked the people up, flown to Bastion and landed in Bastion," Smith said. "Then, we would have had two CH-53Es standing by to meet that airplane. You had to take the time to get the people off the C-130, onto the CH-53, and then the 53 would take 30 minutes to get to Marjah. For us, it's a two-hour trip out and when they get back on the aircraft it's a two hour trip to get them where they need to be."
Throughout the bitter weather and the biting sand of southwestern Afghanistan, taking fire from insurgents and conducting raids and drops, VMM-261 got the job done and came home with every aircraft and Marine.
"All you got to do is come fly with us," Smith said. "Every deployment is proving its capabilities; every single one."
By Cpl. Nichole R. Werling, USMC