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 56th RQS supports Operation Odyssey Dawn
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Air Force on Deck
MEDITERRANEAN SEA - Embarked aboard amphibious transport dock USS Ponce (LPD 15), U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Patrick Ledbetter pre-flights the engine on an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter from the 56th Rescue Squadron on March 27, 2011. Based out of RAF Lakenheath, England, a detachment from the 56th is aboard Ponce in order to provide combat search and rescue support for coalition forces flying in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn, the coalition effort to bring humanitarian relief to the Libyan people. Ponce is part of Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathanael Miller)
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Air Force on Deck

Posted 4/5/2011   Updated 4/5/2011 Email story   Print story


by Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathanael Miller
USS PONCE (LPD 15) Public Affairs

4/5/2011 - MEDITERRANEAN SEA  -- The joint operational capabilities of the United States armed forces are on display in the middle of "the Med" as amphibious transport dock USS Ponce (LPD 15) acts as a staging platform for a detachment of HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters from the U.S. Air Force's 56th Rescue Squadron on March 27, 2011.

Based out of RAF Lakenheath, England, the two helicopters and support personnel have been forward deployed aboard Ponce in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn, a joint coalition effort to enforce the U.N. Resolution 1973 that established a no-fly zone over the country of Libya.

The 56th RQS' mission is as simple as its name. Should any coalition aircrew go down for any reason, the Airmen of the 56th RQS will bring them home.

"They sent us out to sit combat search and rescue alert for the guys who are flying over Libya," explained Lt. Col. Mark Ahrens, a pilot flying with the 56th RQS. "We're covering U.S. and other coalition forces as this is a big, joint endeavor."

So far the detachment has not been called upon to go rescue anyone.

"Luckily, not too many bad things have happened, because a busy day for us is a bad day for somebody else," Colonel Ahrens commented. "So we're glad when we don't have a busy day."

The 56th RQS embarked Ponce on March 21, the day a U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle went down over Libya with equipment malfucntions. HH-60G pilot Capt. John Frederick said, "It was on the news when that F-15E went down, but we had just gotten out here so it ended up being a better solution to send somebody else to go get them." Captain Frederick added that both aircrew had been rescued.

While waiting for a call they hope will not come, the men of the 56th are adjusting to their sudden transition to a life at sea.

"This is my first time to be stationed on a ship," Captain Frederick explained. "We're just getting used to the ship and trying not to step on the toes of the guys who live here."

Tech. Sgt. Ben Ward, an aircrew life support equipment technician, finds the isolation of being part of a sea-borne detachment an interesting challenge, because he doesn't have access to the same resources he would ashore.

"We can't just go down to the supply store to get the supplies we need," Sergeant Ward said.

This isolation from a supply center means that he and his fellow Airmen had to plan carefully when packing their gear into the limited space afforded by the HH-60Gs.

Crew chief Staff Sgt. Garrett Fillingham agreed with Sergeant Ward that the parts issue was a unique challenge.

"We only have the two aircraft, and we can only fit so much on them. So we can only bring so many supplies, and in the middle of the ocean it's kind of hard to get parts."

Sergeant Fillingham added that another factor that Sailors have contended with for years is also creating problems for him and his fellow Airmen - salt spray.

"The salt is one of the worst things I've seen. The corrosion ... you can really start to see how bad it's affecting the aircraft," he said.

The saltwater environment has required the 56th RQS' maintainers to step up the frequency of aircraft wash downs. Fillingham said that while aboard Ponce they have to clean the aircraft almost daily to keep the salt corrosion under control. On a land base they would not have to wash the aircraft so often to keep them in a high state of readiness.

Life at sea also presents the unique experience of a living on a deck that moves on its own due to high seas. So far, the Airmen of the 56th RQS have experienced generally good weather while aboard Ponce, but every now and then the Mediterranean does throw an unexpected swell that can catch one off guard, Sergeant Fillingham added with a smile. While he has noticed Ponce's Sailors are not fazed at all by such sudden rolls, he still finds them a surprise.

Chief Master Sgt. Dino Thanos, an aerial gunner flying with the 56th RQS, agreed that getting one's "sea legs" was an interesting experience for the Airmen.

"The physiological aspect is one of the biggest challenges," Chief Thanos said. "You've got to find your sea legs. There's no sea legs on land; everything stays in one spot. But out here, you work all those peripheral muscles you don't work when you walk on land." Chief Thanos added that he has deployed aboard ship before, so he merely had to regain his sea legs.

The chief also explained that he doesn't find the confined space aboard ship very different from other deployments he's made. No matter where he's been, his aircraft have always been parked in a relatively small area, and the maintenance spaces are minimal. As far as the ship itself, Thanos said Ponce's Sailors are professional and some of the easiest people to work with that he has encountered in his career.

"It's been a pleasure to be aboard," he said. "This has been a great naval experience for me and what I call my 'A' team."

As the 56th RQS stands by, hoping not to be called but ready to fly if needed, Colonel Ahrens also said the combined 56th Rescue Squadron/USS Ponce team has been one of the highlights of his professional experience.

"I think living on the ship has been great," he said, "Everybody's been fantastic and very courteous, and we've melded together pretty well."

The great working relationship between the Air Force aircrew and Ponce's Sailors is a fact coalition aircrews can look to with confidence as they fly into harm's way over Libya.

Ponce is part of Kearsarge Expeditionary Strike Group, supporting Operation Odyssey Dawn. Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn is the U.S. Africa Command task force established to provide operational and tactical command and control of U.S. military forces supporting the international response to the unrest in Libya and enforcement of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973. UNSCR 1973 authorizes all necessary measures to protect civilians in Libya under threat of attack by Qadhafi regime forces. JTF Odyssey Dawn is commanded by U.S. Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, III.

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