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Commanding Officer of squadron Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light FIVE ONE (HSL-51) at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Commander Dan Fillion thanks the crew for their efforts in the squardron's milestone of 75,000 hours mishap-free. HSL-51 is the only forward deployed LAMPS squadron which deploys UH-3H and SH-60B helos to various ships in Yokosuka.

Commanding Officer of squadron Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light FIVE ONE (HSL-51) at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Commander Dan Fillion thanks the crew for their efforts in the squardron's milestone of 75,000 hours mishap-free. HSL-51 is the only forward deployed LAMPS squadron which deploys UH-3H and SH-60B helos to various ships in Yokosuka. (Jim Schulz / S&S)

ATSUGI NAVAL AIR FACILITY, Japan — In the midst of war, members of the largest aircraft squadron at this base near Tokyo quietly are celebrating a milestone: 75,000 flying hours without a mishap.

Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light 51 should have reached the mark with a routine flight Wednesday. They were to congratulate each other, shake hands and eat some cake. But privately, they admitted, they wished they were elsewhere: near the fighting in Iraq.

“I’ve been training to do this for 14 years,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Simonton, 32, an aviation warfare systems operator aboard the SH-60B Seahawk. “It’s hard to fly a desk when the mission I’ve been training to do is actually going on.”

The squadron, after all, takes its call sign, “Warlords,” from the famous Japanese Samurai warrior, Musashi.

“We harp ourselves as being a varsity squad. No one on the varsity squad wants to sit on the bench while there’s guys out in the field playing the game,” said Lt. j.g. Jason Carrillo, 25, a SH-60B Seahawk co-pilot.

“It’s very frustrating to turn on the news and watch what’s going on. We understand why we’re here, and we have a different mission, but it’s difficult to watch the others in the thick of it.”

Of the squadron’s 300 members, 60 remain at Atsugi; seven of eight detachments are deployed to sea.

Getting the call to deploy is a matter of timing.

“You had a detachment trained up and ready to go and you got the call,” Simonton said. “It’s a rotation list — they were there at the right time.”

HSL-51 provides combat-ready helicopter detachments for deployment aboard ships based in Yokosuka, Japan. Its primary mission is anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare.

The squadron comprises 13 SH-60B Seahawks and two UH-3H Sea Kings, the latter mostly for VIP transport.

Billed as the world’s most technologically advanced helicopter, the SH-60B carries weapons and electronic sensors, such as radar and infrared.

Its several capabilities include dropping sonic detectors in the water to locate enemy submarines or launching torpedoes.

“We extend the range of the ship enormously,” said Lt. Nathan Bitz, 27, an SH-60B Seahawk aircraft commander. “We can go out over the horizon and relay back to our ships” targets of interest.

“Basically, a big flying antenna,” Carrillo said.

The squadron has had zero flight mishaps since its formation more than 11 years ago, said Cmdr. D.H. “Dano” Fillion, HSL-51’s commanding officer. He called the safety record a “team effort.”

“We’re the only forward-deployed HSL squadron in the entire Navy,” he said. “Every year that we’ve been in existence, we do more flying, more missions and more deployments than anybody else, and that’s just by nature of being out here.”

To put the 75,000-hour milestone in perspective, Carrillo and other squadron members did the math: “You could drive from here to the moon and back, 20 times,” he said.

The achievement may be even more remarkable considering the inherent hazards of naval aviation.

“We go out and fly in the ocean, where there aren’t any runways and there aren’t any fields to land in,” Bitz said. “It’s just water and a couple of boats. That’s kind of what sets us apart as naval aviators.”

The recent string of helo crashes in and near Iraq serves as a harsh reminder of those perils, Fillion said.

Helicopters don’t have an ejection system, he said: “Every take-off is followed by some sort of landing, and you’re going to be involved in both.”

Further, most of HSL-51’s missions are done at night, often with night-vision goggles at 200 feet above water. If something goes awry, he said, “You’ve got a couple split seconds” to react.

But crewmembers who fly the helos aren’t fazed by the risks.

“Safety is one of the foremost things that we talk about before we ever get in the aircraft,” Simonton said. “But if we actually thought about, ‘We might have an accident today,’ I don’t think any of us would ever get in the aircraft.”

Added Bitz: “We’re confident in our training, let’s put it that way.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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