Artillery air mail; Helicopters rapidly deploy M777 Howitzer during training exercise
By Courtesy Story, II Marine Expeditionary Force
Marines with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 461, Marine Aircraft Group 29, 2nd Marine Air Wing, II Marine Expeditionary Force conducted a reactionary combat training exercise with the M777 Howitzer aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Sept. 30.
The exercise helped develop the level of cohesion needed to allow the air and ground units to rapidly deploy the howitzer, improving the combined team’s reaction time and precision. The ability to deploy the weapon system and engage targets in a timely manner could be essential in a combat environment, but requires a high level of coordination between Marines from various units.
Ideally, a well-trained team is capable of dropping off the crews and equipment, who can then engage targets within five to ten minutes, explained Lance Cpl. Christopher G. Powell, a helicopter crew chief with HMH-461.
“This is good for reactionary combat situations,” said Powell. “We can go pick up the crew and gear and bring them from one place to another until the job is done and rounds are complete.”
During the exercise, two CH-53E Super Stallions, known as Iron Horses, delivered the almost 10,000-pound artillery system and 155mm ammunition to a gun crew on the ground. Marines on the ground then set up targets and readied their M777 to fire.
After firing the howitzer, the helicopters swept back over the field and landing support specialists with Combat Logistics Battalion 26, Combat Logistics Regiment 27, 2nd Marine Logistics Group reattached the equipment to the helicopters. The combined team then set out for a second landing zone and repeated the process.
As a crew chief, Powell helped the pilots maneuver the 99-foot long helicopter as it delivered the howitzer and its ground crew to various firing positions around the base.
“The pilots can’t see everything,” said Powell, who uses his vantage point behind the pilots to help maneuver the aircraft as it nears the ground. “We have [millions of dollars] worth of equipment underneath us, as well as the helicopter support team and the gun crew. You’re not only watching out for gear, you’re also watching out for people’s lives.”
In addition to maintaining the aircraft and helping to man its internal weapons systems, safely offloading the equipment and personnel within the Iron Horse is one of Powell’s main missions.
If a chain holding a howitzer breaks or equipment is dropped inadvertently, the Marines on the ground could be endangered.
Additionally, any gear that inadvertently comes in contact with the ground could endanger both the aircraft and crew inside.
Pilots and their air crews regularly brief each other on emergency procedures and any potential hazards such as inclement weather or ground obstacles. Each time the helicopter lands, Marines on the ground are also given safety guidelines to help maintain the speed and precision necessary to execute lift missions.
Accuracy during such exercises promotes precision and minimal errors during real-life missions. Continuous joint air-ground training is necessary to maintain readiness and effectiveness for future missions.
“This is something we are called to do, so we are going to excel at it,” Powell said.