CENTRAL COMMAND AREA OF OPERATIONS -- Standing in the eye of a man-made tornado, sand, pebbles and debris whirl around the Marines concentrating on their task.
The thundering clap of rotor blades from a 16,500-pound helicopter hovering overhead reduces communication to hand and arm signals.
The 100 mph downwash of a CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter isn't enough to prevent the members of the Helicopter Support Team, Landing Support Detachment, MEU Service Support Group 11, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) from doing their job--hooking external cargo to the helicopter for transport.
During a recent exercise in the Central Command area of operations, MEU forces training on desert firing ranges initially did not have enough targets. After range officials located some old vehicle hulls fit for the job, the HST was called in to move the vehicles to the ranges.
Prior to such missions the Marines focus on preparation.
"I?m thinking about safety and whether or not everybody knows where to be and what they need be doing," said Cpl. Brian Duffy, HST member, MSSG-11, 11th MEU (SOC). "If a guy goes in not knowing what he?s doing, chances are something bad could happen."
Having situational awareness and being informed is second nature to this seasoned Marine team.
"We?ve been together as a team for over the past year," said Sgt. James Fincher, HST commander, MSSG-11, 11th MEU (SOC). "We?ve done several of these types of missions and we know all the procedures for a lift like this."
Relying on their training, experience, and their buddy?s watchful eye, these Marines are ready for the job.
They break into action, opening boxes, laying out gear and surveying the objects to be lifted: old, rusted and busted up truck hulls. Within moments, they have laid out everything they need and the team begins hooking up slings to the first hull. They also break out any glass and tear off any loose material that could be dangerous in the lift process.
Three minutes later, they are ready for the helicopter to arrive and lift the cargo. Quickly and carefully, the Marines look around for anything that could blow around when the bird comes in, becoming a flying hazard.
With the area cleared, the helicopter is seen in the distance moving towards them. The team gets in their assigned positions, each keeping a watchful eye on the cargo and their fellow team members.
Arriving at the team's position, the bird begins to hover 15 feet above the ground. With the bird above them, the Marines signal to their partners. The outside guide, who is in front of the helicopter, gives the pilot guidance on how far to descend.
As the rotors whirl, dust and sand flies in the distance. Sneaking up on them, the Marines are soon engulfed in a tornado-like storm. It is no surprise some of them wear goggles and gas masks to help them breathe in the sandy environment.
The bird descends slowly until it is less than 10 feet off the ground with a hook hanging just within reach of the Marines. A Marine with a static wand, used to ground any electrical current running through the hook, taps the hook and grounds it out.
During the next phase, two Marines grab the slings with loops connected at the end and clasp it into the hook attached under the helicopter.
After securing the slings, all nonessential personnel run to a designated rally point a safe distance away from the helicopter.
Two Marines stay under the aircraft as it begins to lift the load. One watches for safety matters as another ensures the slings don?t get tangled on the cargo--the key to a successful mission.
"During training, we usually work with a type of block," Fincher said. "With this type of mission, we have to be concerned about how the cargo might get twisted or shift when it is being lifted."
With another flurry of sand and dust, the helicopter?s payload is airborne. Now on the way to its destination, the hull will meet another group of HST members, who will be waiting to unhook the cargo at its target location.
Looking forward to any opportunity to use their skills, the HST Marines couldn't be happier.
With the dust and targets now settled into place, they call it a day after successfully moving more than 7,000 pounds of vehicle hulls.
"These types of missions are exciting and they are what we like to do," Fincher said. "I wish we could do more of them. My guys did a great job."