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The pilot of a CH-46 is directed onto a simulated ship deck at a training area on Ie Shima island off the west coast of Okinawa on Thursday.

The pilot of a CH-46 is directed onto a simulated ship deck at a training area on Ie Shima island off the west coast of Okinawa on Thursday. (Fred Zimmerman / S&S)

The pilot of a CH-46 is directed onto a simulated ship deck at a training area on Ie Shima island off the west coast of Okinawa on Thursday.

The pilot of a CH-46 is directed onto a simulated ship deck at a training area on Ie Shima island off the west coast of Okinawa on Thursday. (Fred Zimmerman / S&S)

Marine Staff Sgt. Peter Lainberger scans the horizon as he performs his duties as a crew chief aboard a CH-46

Marine Staff Sgt. Peter Lainberger scans the horizon as he performs his duties as a crew chief aboard a CH-46 (Fred Zimmerman / S&S)

A crew chief acts as the pilot’s eyes while leaning out of a helicopter about to land on the island’s landing zone.

A crew chief acts as the pilot’s eyes while leaning out of a helicopter about to land on the island’s landing zone. (Fred Zimmerman / S&S)

IE SHIMA, Okinawa — As the CH-46 helicopter approached the ship’s deck, the crew chief leaned out the opening at his seat, watching the “Phrog” get closer to landing. As the helicopter hovered, he became the eyes of the pilot, slowly guiding the machine down. Crew chief and pilot worked hand-in-hand trying to gingerly put the three sets of wheels into approximately 2-foot by 2-foot squares.

While the above can take place on any ship with a landing pad, it actually happened on a mock deck similar to the USS Essex. Pilots and crew chiefs from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262 (HMM-262), the current aviation element of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, conducted initial and refresher carrier qualification landings Thursday at the training site on Ie Shima island off the west coast of Okinawa.

Before any helicopter pilot can make a shipboard landing, they must rehearse, according to 1st Lt. Kenneth Morrow, a new pilot with HMM-262. He said pilots must complete at least five simulated landings and another minimum of five on an actual ship before they can ever land on a ship while carrying troops.

“Everything we do is walk, crawl, run,” he said.

When helicopters come in to land, they’re assigned a certain spot on the deck. Morrow said each spot has painted squares where pilots attempt to put the wheels. Guiding the more than 24,000-pound helicopter into the tight spot can’t be done alone.

“The crew chief is essential,” said Morrow, who conducted his initial carrier landing qualifications Thursday. “You have more than 27 feet [of helicopter] behind you that you don’t know where it is … I wouldn’t want to try doing it without the crew chief.”

The crew chief tells the pilot how far left or right the helicopter has to go, and then counts down the feet as the deck nears. The crew chief is essentially the eyes of the pilots, said Staff Sgt. Peter Lainberger, one of the unit’s crew chiefs.

“The pilot should be looking at a reference point, and we’re trying to walk the tail right into the spots,” Lainberger said. “The toughest thing for the crew chief is watching the rate of descent.”

Just like pilots, crew chiefs must be certified to help pilots land on ships and must requalify to maintain their certification, Lainberger said.

Morrow said Thursday’s training was good. While he didn’t “hit the box” every time, he said his first carrier landings went well. After each landing the other pilot and crew chief debriefed him on what happened and what he could do to improve the landings, said Morrow.

The pilots’ next step, Morrow said, is to perform the landings on an actual ship.


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