WESTERN PACIFIC OCEAN – They only have three aircraft aboard amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4), but the “Wildcards” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 23 are a vital component of the Amphibious Ready Group One, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) team.
“Our overall mission on Boxer is to support the power presence,” said Lt. Claire Calaway, assistant officer in charge of HSC 23. “We provide security to the ship and an overall structural awareness of the surface and air threat picture.”
Embarked aboard Boxer since September 2015, Detachment One supported the ship and 13th MEU Air Combat Element throughout the work-up cycle and during deployment by providing a broad range of capabilities.
“The specific missions that we are tasked to support are personnel recovery, SOF [special operations forces] support, and then anti-surface warfare,” said Lieutenant Commander David Yoon, “Wildcards” detachment officer in charge. “Our primary missions are search and rescue as well as logistics support. Anti-surface warfare encompasses potentially having hellfire missiles, air to surface missiles, the 50-caliber gun. With that we are able to target enemy shipping and provide close air support if necessary.”
HSC 23 also assists Boxer’s mission by providing an extra layer of early warning and protection against various hostile contacts Boxer may encounter at sea.
“If we see any surface contacts while we are flying, search and rescue we will report back to make sure that no one gets too close to the Boxer,” said Calaway.
Their missions require a lot of planning and coordination. The detachment maintains the minimum amount of personnel necessary aboard to maintain operational readiness. This includes task orders to launch an aircraft within one hour of notice.
As a safety measure all pilots must have at least eight hours of sleep before they fly as the flight window may be extended well beyond the scheduled timeframe, depending on the mission.
Yoon placed special emphasis on the Naval Air Crewmen who fly with the pilots, and noted their extensive training required to support the “Wildcard” mission.
“It is a special designation in and of itself,” said Yoon. “They are the enlisted guys that fly with the pilots and they have to go through and an arduous training process including rescue swimmer school. It’s about year to a year and a half for them to go through ‘A’-school and be sent out to the fleet and then they have constant physical training to include pool work, rescue swimmer carries, and then hoist training.
have requirements to do SAR jumps, which consists of them jumping from the helicopter into the water every ninety days and then they do evaluations and tests on top of the regular Navy fitness tests. It’s a constant challenge for them.”
The workload on the maintenance side can be just as challenging. The maintainer mission is to ensure the aircraft are prepared for several evolutions from vertical replenishments to medical evacuation transfers.
“We are the only asset that the commanding officer directly controls,” said Aviation Ordnanceman 1st Class Danielle Tilbury. “We are the first responders for search and rescue, for personnel alerts, and we are the first and last to launch or recover. We are on alert 24/7.”
The detachment consists of nine pilots, ten aircrewmen and twenty-three maintainers or maintenance professionals with the majority of the detachment consisting of enlisted personnel. Several rates make up the detachment, including Aviation Ordnancemen, Aviation Electronics Technicians, Aviation Maintenance Administrationmen, Aircrew Survival Equipmentmen, and Logistics Specialists. They operate in twelve hour shifts and must maintain their aircraft at all times to support the schedule.
“We have to be extremely flexible,” said Aviation Ordnanceman 2nd Class Mary Kesner. “The plans change constantly and we never really know what’s going to happen, we just have to be ready to respond at all times and be ready for whatever tasking we receive.”
“Everyone on the team is an essential element to the completion of the mission and if one of these elements is missing then the mission becomes both more difficult and hazardous.” said Yoon. “If I am missing maintainers then that is lost work. All elements of the detachment are essential and if we were to lose any aspects then we would be in a hurt locker.”
Despite hardships some believe these challenges have improved their performance as a team.
“A lot of the struggle has made us stronger as a group,” said Kesner. “When you feel defeated at the end of the day you know that you are not the only one going through it and that tomorrow is a new day.”
Others take a special pride in their work and their own contributions to the mission at the end of the day.
“My favorite part is watching the bird take off and return knowing that my effort contributed to it,” said Aviation Electronics Technician 3rd Class Ashley Bennet. “The hard work that I put into it, that we all put into it. Knowing that the aircraft was in the hangar bay two days ago and completely torn apart and to see it take off, it lets you know that you are doing something great.”
USS Boxer (LHD 4), flagship of the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group, with amphibious transport dock ship USS New Orleans (LPD 18), amphibious dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 49) and the embarked 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, is operating in the Western Pacific in support of security in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
While in 7th Fleet, the Boxer ARG and 13th MEU and assigned to Commander, Amphibious Force U.S. 7th Fleet, the Navy's only forward-deployed amphibious force, headquartered at White Beach Naval Facility, Okinawa.