PERSIAN GULF — Nobody involved on this particular mission has ever come across a real sea mine. Nonetheless, sailors in Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 15 practice a process known as “mechanical sweeps” on a routine basis.
It’s a methodical process in which a contraption designed to cut the chains anchoring sea mines is towed from an MH-53 helicopter flying about 75 feet above the ocean surface — often for hours — back and forth.
It’s for this reason that air warfare specialists aboard the MH-53s often refer to this operation as plowing the field, peeling the onion, or sea farming.
And like farming, it’s a grueling, slow process requiring patience and stamina to overcome the environmental elements.
Cutting the chain anchoring a sea mine would allow it to float to the surface, where ordnance disposal divers would corral it and eliminate it through a controlled detonation.
There are only two squadrons in the Navy that perform airborne mine countermeasures missions making their community a close knit one.
Petty Officer 1st Class Nick Vitouski, a safety observer on a recent flight, has been doing it for 10 years.
“I never thought I would get into this business,” he said.
A prior instructor, he’s now flying with his former students, making sure they’re implementing his lessons.
No rogue mines were discovered on this mission, flown during the U.S. 5th Fleet-led international mine countermeasures exercise in the Persian Gulf last month. The three-week exercise involved 6,500 sailors from 41 nations practicing various aspects of maritime security.