U.S. 5TH FLEET AREA OF RESPONSIBILITY
– Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 23, from Naval Air Station North Island, embarked aboard amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu (LHA 5) as a search and rescue detachment in February 2012 and is currently deployed with the ship.
The detachment provides day and night helicopter amphibious search and rescue support to the ship and embarked 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Aviation Combat Element. Additionally, the squadron assists in logistics support and personnel transfers.
“Whether it’s a MEDEVAC [medical evacuation], SAR, or a vessel in distress, we’re always on call,” said Aviation Electrician’s Mate 1st Class Jeffery Ritchie.
According to Lt. Brian Miller, HSC-23’s operations officer, the squadron, which is based in San Diego, Calif., totaled 470 flight hours and transferred of 550 tons of cargo and 100 passengers during vertical replenishments, thus far. In addition, it maintains an impressive mission completion record and has flown 192 sorties for both aircraft and crew.
The squadron has a total of 12 MH-60S Knighthawk helicopters. Peleliu received two of those aircraft along with pilots, naval air crewmen and maintainers for pre-deployment workups and deployment.
Every pilot, crewman, and maintainer trains extensively in San Diego and continues to maintain their training throughout the deployment. While at sea, pilots constantly perform and practice search and rescue flight patterns drills.
“It all starts in the flight brief where we’re informed on who is flying from the air plan,” said Lt. James Turnwall, a detachment helicopter pilot. “The NATOPS [Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization] brief covers our procedures for the flight and how we will conduct a rescue and then we execute it.”
Along with the common aviation rates, a logistics specialist handles parts and supplies for the squadron. Logistics Specialist Seaman Kieara Taylor’s duties include standing a flight deck fire watch and taking fuel samples.
“Being the only LS in the squadron gives me a great sense of responsibility,” said Taylor. “Birds [helicopters] can’t fly unless they have the proper parts.”
The air crewmen serve as rescue swimmers in the squadron and are required to fly in pairs. In the event of a search and rescue casualty, one of the two crewmen is sent out of the helicopter to recover personnel, either from a man overboard or a distressed ship.
“The crewmen prepare to perform these tasks effectively with the crawl, walk, run mentality,” said Naval Air Crewman (Helicopter) 2nd Class Benjamin Chavez. “We read from the flight publications frequently to make sure we understand exactly what is expected while on a search and rescue mission. Then we’ll fly with an experienced crew under instruction until we are ready to perform missions.”
Other squadron missions include ferrying passengers, mail and cargo, and investigating radar contacts. During a man overboard drill, the team responds much like a fireman to an emergency.
“We can get to the life-saving ring within seven minutes,” said Ritchie. “Our goal is to be out there quicker than expected.”
Peleliu is the flagship for the Peleliu Amphibious Ready Group and, with the embarked 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, is deployed in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.