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HMM-161 flies 50,000th safe hour in Iraq

Feb. 8, 2006; Submitted on: 02/08/2006 09:32:06 AM ; Story ID#: 2006289326

By Cpl. James D. Hamel, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing



AL TAQADDUM, Iraq (Feb. 8, 2006) -- The emphasis on operational safety keeps growing in the modern Marine aviation community, but even in such a safety-conscious environment, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 161 stands out as it recently celebrated its 50,000th class ‘A’ mishap-free hour.

The CH-46 Sea Knight squadron based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., worked on the milestone for more than a decade. Class ‘A’ mishaps are defined as those in which a life is lost or any damage incurred during an aviation accident is more than $1 million. The Greyhawks hit the 50,000 hour mark during its deployment to Al Taqaddum, Iraq, where its primary mission is evacuating injured coalition forces from the battlefield.

Captain Steven M. Clifton, the squadron’s aviation safety officer, said that in his line of work, mission accomplishment and safety are mutually inclusive, you can’t have one without the other.

“Our mission out here is to bring casualties from the point of injury or aid stations to more capable medical facilities,” said Clifton, a DeKalb, Ill., native. “If you don’t do that safely, you’ve failed both your crew and the individual in need of medical care.”

The first hour of the milestone was logged Feb. 19, 1995, before many of ‘161’s current members could call themselves Marines. The unit continued to build on its record of safety during training exercises at home and multiple deployments with various Marine Expeditionary Units. In Iraq, they added 9,100 more hours during three combat deployments, including their most recent flights that put them over the 50,000 mark.

“The overwhelming majority of flight hours this squadron has flown during the last three years have been in a combat environment,” said Major James D. Hill, HMM-161’s executive officer. “We fly an incredibly high operational tempo here in Iraq, and the fact we can (do that) safely is a testament to the dedication and focus of our Marines.”

While the squadron’s outstanding safety record began 11 years ago, the aircraft that helped them obtain that record is more than 40 years old. An older aircraft, flown often in a harsh Iraqi climate, presents a formidable maintenance challenge, but Cpl. James R. Bearb said the maintenance is actually easier than some might expect.

“These aircraft were designed to fly, and the more they sit around, the more problems come up,” said Bearb, a Houston native. “It may seem strange, but when the aircraft is flying, all of the systems are being utilized, so the problems don’t occur as much as one would think.”

Sergeant Jason G. Hernandez, a flightline mechanic with ‘161 and native of Orangepark, Fla., said he and his comrades were well prepared for the challenges of Iraq.

“With all the training we had prior to this deployment, (maintenance) has seemed a little less difficult,” he said. “We are constantly doing detailed maintenance to keep us going.”

As the squadron nears the end of its deployment, Hill said the Greyhawks are anticipating their homecoming without losing their focus on the task at hand. Bearb said he felt great to be part of an aviation legacy that is 10 years in the making and still going strong. As the squadron continues its important work, the members hope that a decade from now, a new generation of Greyhawks will be celebrating another milestone.

“The command is extremely proud of each and every dedicated professional in this squadron and we are excited to celebrate such an important milestone together,” said Hill. “From the Marines who maintain the aircraft, to the support personnel who keep the squadron humming, every one of our Marines and Sailors play a significant role in our squadron’s success.”
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