Unlike the Army, which uses light and medium helicopters such as the UH-60 and the CH-47, the Marines, due to deck space constraints on amphibious shipping, mostly utilize medium and heavy helicopters, such as the CH-46 and the CH-53 Sea Stallion. The Sea Stallion has been in service since before I was born, from the early days of the Vietnam conflict all the way to today. In fact, the Marines are currently developing a new model, the CH-53K, to replace their current fleet of CH-53Es. The E model is the largest helicopter in the West; only a handful of Soviet era Russian helicopters were larger.
US Navy RH-53D similar to Marines CH-53D
The needs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has seen Marines often lifted in Army helicopters, and Army troops by Marine air. But in the 80s, shared lift was almost unheard of. On the other hand, there were some aspects of Naval Aviation that weren’t quite as tightly controlled as they are today.
As part of my unit’s transition to the Lightfighter organization, we were on the island of Molokai for two weeks of intense training in patrolling, raids, and ambushes. We’d been there about a week, and were starting to feel just a tad worn down. Molokai has some rough terrain and thick foliage. Not quite triple canopy jungle, but thick enough to make movement difficult. Moving more than about 5 kilometers a day while remaining stealthy was a challenge.
The platoon was holed up in a patrol base recovering from a series of patrols when the radio crackled with a change of mission. We were to conduct a raid on a notional insurgent base some 15 kilometers away. Well, long walks are a part of infantry life. The only problem was, we had to make our attack in less than 12 hours. Given the time needed just to plan the raid and recon the objective, just the challenge of reaching the objective in time was almost insurmountable. My poor back started to ache just thinking of the epic forced march we were about to embark on.
Fortune took that moment to smile upon us. In the clearing just up the ridge from out patrol base, a CH-53D from the Marine base at Kanehoe showed up, practicing approaches to off field landings. Our platoon sergeant, never a shy fellow, ran up the ridge and popped out into the clearing, probably startling the Sea Stallion crew to some extent. There’s only so many training areas in Hawaii, but most are reserved for one unit at a time.
After a quick chat with the crew chief, the platoon sergeant ran onboard the Stallion, discussed our situation with the pilots, and soon enough, we were waved on board. The Sea Stallion was easily large enough to swallow our entire platoon. A five minute hop dropped us off about 3 klicks from our objective, with plenty of time for planning, reconnaissance and movement. And a heck of a lot less sweat was expended.
Alas, it is inconceivable that a crew today would risk their careers to help out some grunts. Flying to an unbriefed LZ, and with an unmanifested load, none of whom had any training on loading and unloading on the model in question.
I can’t even remember what squadron that Stallion was from, but to this day, I’m still thankful to that crew.