Union Tribune

March 24, 2003

Unheralded copter pilots on carrier play key role


ABOARD THE CONSTELLATION While the fighter pilots from this and other Navy aircraft carriers have been making news by inflicting devastation on Iraq, crews from four San Diego-based helicopter units were quietly helping to prevent possible environmental devastation in the Persian Gulf.

One of those units also was involved in a dramatic, but little-noted, rescue of five United Nations workers being detained by Iraq.

The two incidents illustrate the vital but largely unheralded role helicopters can play in a hostile environment.

Constellation's air wing, meanwhile, continued to launch strikes into Iraq yesterday, with returning pilots reporting much less anti-aircraft fire than they experienced on Friday, the first night of intense bombing.

The major incident for the helicopters was their support of the Navy SEALs' seizure of two massive Iraqi oil transfer platforms in the northern Persian Gulf on Thursday.

The mission was completed without a shot fired when the Iraqi soldiers on the mile-long platforms quickly surrendered to the heavily armed SEALs.

Rear Adm. Barry M. Costello, commander of the Constellation battle group,said the seizure of the oil platforms and the capture by ground forces of other oil facilities on the Al Faw Peninsula, in the southeastern tip of Iraq, prevented Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from creating an environmental disaster by releasing millions of gallons of oil into the gulf, as he did in 1991.

The operation was recounted early yesterday by some of the helicopter crews involved.

Crews from five squadrons from four locations "came together efficiently to participate in the takedown of the two (platforms)," said Lt. Cmdr Matthew Sandberg of Chula Vista, a pilot with Helicopter Anti-submarine Warfare Squadron 2 who commanded a helicopter in the operation.

The platforms were seized "to prevent an economic or environmental disaster" in the gulf, added Lt. Cmdr. Shawn Malone of Carlsbad, officer-in-charge of Helicopter Anti-submarine Warfare Squadron Light 47, Detachment Four, and pilot of another of the choppers.

Both units are aboard the Constellation.

A crew from Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 4, on the carrier Abraham Lincoln, was on the mission with Sandberg, while crews from Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light 49, on the cruiser Valley Forge, and Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 14, on the carrier Kitty Hawk, supported the SEALs in grabbing the other platform.

Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light 45, on the cruiser Bunker Hill, provided backup. That unit earlier had supported the coastal patrol craft Chinook in stopping an Iraqi tugboat that was trying to take five U.N. workers from the oil platforms to Basra, Costello said.

All of the helicopter units are based at North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado except Squadron 14, which is based in Japan. The Bunker Hill and the Yorktown are from San Diego.

Sandberg and Malone said the helicopter crews trained extensively with the SEALs for the mission.

The squadrons also perform search and rescue missions, fly around the carrier as "plane guard" during flight operation, and provide logistical support, among other missions, he said.

The light helicopter units also have been helping in the coalition's maritime intercept operations to stop illegal oil or weapons shipments by Iraq. But mainly they use their sophisticated detection and communications equipment to provide a protective screen around the battle group.

"Force protection is our bread and butter," Malone said.

Malone flew his SH-60 Seahawk helicopter near one oil platform, using its sensitive infrared viewing system and sophisticated data link to provide real-time information to the command post on Valley Forge.

The HS 2 and HS 4 crews were nearby on the amphibious ship Duluth, prepared to provide gunfire support or evacuation of casualties. Each had a SEAL hospital corpsman on board.

Although the fliers had trained to have the SEALs drop by sliding down ropes from hovering helicopters, the SEALS instead chose to assault the platforms from their boats to the disappointment of some of the chopper crew members.