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Air crewmen in the back of an MH-53 helicopter May 17th, prepare for a mine sweeping process in which the helicopter tows underwater equipment that can cut the chains off sea mines, thereby revealing them when they float to the surface.
Air crewmen in the back of an MH-53 helicopter May 17th, prepare for a mine sweeping process in which the helicopter tows underwater equipment that can cut the chains off sea mines, thereby revealing them when they float to the surface. (Hendrick Simoes/Stars and Stripes)

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.

simoes.hendrick@stripes.com Twitter: @hendricksimoes

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