MH-53E Prepped for New Mission

By John Milliman, USMC Helo Programs PAO

NAVAIR Patuxent River, MD – Neither chart-busting techno thrillers nor action-packed Hollywood block busters are likely to use their daily routine for plot fodder any time soon, but that’s never fazed the MH-53E Sea Dragon crews of Helicopter Support Squadron Four.

Delivering critically needed spare parts, mail, passengers and other high-priority cargo to carrier battle groups and expeditionary strike groups transiting the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, the heavy lift/vertical onboard delivery specialists assigned to the Sigonella, Sicily Naval Air Station have gotten used to seeing others head to the fight.

That’s about to change.

With the help of the Naval Air Systems Command’s H-53 Heavy Lift Helicopter Program, Rotary Wing Test Squadron 21, NAVAIR Cherry Point’s Fleet Support Team and Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 14, the Black Stallions of HC-4 will soon head to the fight themselves armed with a new mission – assault support.

Not bad for a squadron formerly headed for the archives.

“In the past year, our squadron was going to be decommissioned,” explains HC-4’s Lt. Todd Tavolazzi. “This opportunity came up to go to support the war and we’re all pretty excited.”

Although designed to pull mine countermeasures equipment through the water, the Sea Dragons assigned to HC-4 are primarily used to ferry cargo to ships at sea from their base in Sigonella, according to Tavolazzi. Going to austere forward operating locations ashore in Iraq in direct support of ground forces represents a new challenge for the Navy crews.

“For the end user like us it’s a huge effort to learn all these new tactics and environments we’re not as familiar with,” Tavolazzi explains. “The Marines have this all ingrained, but it’s new to us.”

To help them prepare, NAVAIR’s H-53 program office is making sure upgrades designed for the aircraft at Cherry Point, North Carolina enable the Black Stallions to “git ‘er done” in Iraq.

“We typically associate the assault support mission with the Marine Corps’ CH-53E and the MH-53E with vertical onboard delivery and airborne mine countermeasures,” says Marine Capt. Tom Page, the H-53 program’s avionics systems project officer. “To enable the MH’s to pick up the assault support mission, we’re installing the GAU-21 ramp-mounted .50-caliber machine gun, ALE-47/AAR-47 missile warning and countermeasures suite, the ballistic protection system, and we’re making sure the cockpit is compatible with night vision devices.”

The $5 million effort will modify eight aircraft assigned to both HC-4 and the Norfolk, Virginia-based HM-14. Ultimately, program officials expect to upgrade all 34 aircraft in the Navy’s MH-53E fleet.

Aggressive and ambitious, according to Navy Lt. Cmdr Dave Padula, the H-53 program’s assistant program manager for systems engineering, the initial tasking was received in February and the schedule calls for testing to be complete by the end of June. The squadron is to be completely trained and equipped by the end of the year.

“All these systems have been tested already on the CH-53E,” says Maj. Hank Vanderborght, HX-21’s H-53 test pilot here. “All we’re doing here is verifying that we have no issues with putting them on the MH-53E.

“The biggest issue is determining if the different airflow [caused by the MH-53E’s larger sponsons) affects link and casing separation [from the GAU-21] and flare dispensing,” he adds. “We’ll also be testing the aircraft’s electromagnetic environment compatibility with other aircraft and aboard ship and upgrading the cockpit lighting to make it compatible with night vision devices.”

Despite a seemingly straightforward and easy test program, Vanderborght isn’t complacent.

“Nothing in testing is simple,” he quips.

In addition to the aircraft modifications, training the aircrews is an equally important part of the mission preparation. A few of HC-4’s pilots are attending the Marine Corps weapons and tactics course given by
Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One at Yuma, Ariz, according to Padula. They, in turn, will return to the squadron and instruct the other crews in assault support tactics.

Others will be learning NVG tactics with the Marines’ reserve CH-53E squadron at Willow Grove, Penn.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” admits Tavolazzi.

But well worth the effort, according to Sgt. Tom Dungan, H-53 crew chief at HX-21 – himself an Iraq combat veteran with 96 missions.

“You can’t have enough ‘53’s in country so it will be great having the Navy helping out,” he says.

Photo: An MH-53E from the Sigonella, Sicily-based Helicopter Support Squadron Four departs NAS Patuxent River to test upgrades made to the MH-53E Sea Dragon to ready it for a new mission of assault support in Iraq. NAVAIR engineers and logisticians from the H-53 program office and the Fleet Support Team at NAVAIR Cherry Point, North Carolina, as well as Airborne Mine Counter Measures Squadron 14 in Norfolk are helping with the effort. Flight testing, which started June 23, is scheduled to conclude June 30. US Navy photo by Chris Barrett.

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