PHROGS: Corps’ historic birds take final flights

A CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter with HMM 364 (Rein.), 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, hovers above the water as Marines with Kilo Company, Battalion Landing Team 3/5, 15th MEU, conduct helo casting exercises at Arta Beach, Djibouti, Feb. 11. The helicopter was conducting exercises as part of sustainment training during the MUE’s Western Pacific Deployment 12-02. The 15th MEU is deployed as part of the USS Peleliu Group, and is scheduled to complete its eight-month deployment and return to Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton Sept. 13.

The Marine Corps has a long and storied history with the bird they affectionately call the “Phrog.” More than four decades have passed since the CH-46A Sea Knight entered the Corps’ arsenal, and now 49 years later, the birds will be resting their wings as their last flights come to an end as the Corps transitions to the MV-22 Osprey.

Pilots of this aircraft believe it to be one of the most reliable aircraft the Corps has used, but with the advancement in aircraft technology and today’s demanding, ever-changing battlespace, it is losing its spot as the go-to aircraft.

The Marines have been using variations of the CH-46 helicopter since the Vietnam era, where its history of troop and cargo transport began. As a purely defensive platform, its mission is taking Marines to the battle as well as conducting other assault support such as combat resupply, aerial reconnaissance, casualty medical evacuation and acting as a command and control platform.

The first model of the twin-turbine, tandem rotor Sea Knight was designed for the Marine Corps in 1961 as a medium assault transport helicopter and made its first flight in 1962.  

Although it wasn’t until 1964, during the Vietnam War, that it began its military service carrying troops and cargo to and from Navy ships in the China Sea.

However, the first model, the CH-46A, didn’t have enough power or a reliable enough transmission to handle the harsh combat conditions it faced.  

These problems led to advancements of the CH-46D in late 1967, which showcased a more powerful transmission and lighter, stronger rotor blades, which allowed it to climb faster than its predecessor or the UH-1.   

From 1968-1971 the Corps received the upgraded CH-46F, which included improvements in avionics and all-weather performance, a better navigation system and three M-2 .50-caliber machine guns.

It quickly became the Marine Corps’ main airframe in Vietnam, being used in airmobile assault, logistics and combat support as well as medical evacuation and combat search and rescue roles. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s the current version, the CH-46E was put in to use.

The Sea Knight has earned its place in Marine Corps history.  

It has been the workhorse of the rotary community for almost 50 years, said Master Sgt. Lewis Young, maintenance chief, HMM-364, 15th MEU.  

It has been used to conduct missions in such auspicious places as Danang, Khe Sahn and Saigon, and following Vietnam, they were used to evacuate Marines from Grenada and Beirut and flew missions in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Kuwait and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the 46 squadrons conducted thousands of casualty evacuations of Marines wounded in action.

 “The versatility of (Phrog) is one of its best attributes,” said Young. “It covers a wide spectrum of missions from aerial reconnaissance to (casualty evacuations) to assault support and can land almost anywhere.”

The CH-46 got its nickname “Phrog” because of its appearance.  

As it lands, the aft landing gears sits lower, so it looks like it’s squatting and the chin bubble windows go up to a point on both sides, so it looks like it’s smiling.  

It has an average capacity of 12 combat loaded Marines and 4,000 pounds of cargo.  

It’s flight distance is dependent on cargo weight, winds and fuel, said Sgt. Maj. Derek Leggett, sergeant major, HMM-364 (Rein.), 15th MEU.

According to Maj. Heath Jameson, CH-46 pilot, HMM-364, 15th MEU, not only is the aircraft exceptionally reliable, but should maintenance become necessary, it is incredibly easy to repair as well.  

Because it has been around so long, it has a very mature supply system, making it possible to get the bird back in the air as quickly as possible.

Not only is the bird extremely effective and easy to maintain, but its safety record is among the best in any type model series in the Marine Corps right now, said Lt. Col. John M. Field, commanding officer, HMM-364 (Rein.), 15th MEU, adding the success and safety of the aircraft is attributed to the fact that it has been used for such a long period of time.

For most of its service, the 46 community boasted approximately 145 Phrogs spread throughout 17 (15 active, 2 reserve) squadrons. Today, however, as the Corps conducts a transition to the MV-22 Osprey and closes in on the transition completion date of October 2015, the number of squadrons has decreased to 5 (4 active, 1 reserve), with only approximately 60 birds left in service.

Marines who hold military occupational specialties in the 46 community have options when it comes time to make the transition to the newer, faster MV-22.  

The Table of Operation/Table of Equipment for the new MV-22 squadrons was matched as closely as possible to mirror that of the CH-46 squadrons, so many enlisted crewmembers will simply transition to the new platform.  

However, they also have the option to conduct a lateral move through Headquarters Marine Corps, just as any Marine choosing to change occupational specialties.

Pilots can submit requests to the transition board, which establishes the eligibility criteria for a limited numbers of pilot positions.  

The board will match up pilots with the need of the Corps.  Some of the pilots for the MV-22 will automatically transition to the new aircraft and some will be selected by the board.  

  If a pilot is not chosen to automatically transition or selected by the board they will no longer be in a flight status and can choose to conduct a lateral move as well.  

 “It’s a transition to a new airframe, so there are some challenges that come with that.  

In this case, it’s particularly challenging given that it’s a slightly different flight regime with a tilt rotor aircraft,” said Field. “From the piloting perspective, though, flying an airplane is still flying an airplane, so there are certain skills that transfer over like navigation, communication and air sense.”

Marines from HMM-364 (Rein.), currently assigned to the 15th MEU, are looking forward to the transition to the new aircraft, but reminisce fondly of their great history as a Phrog squadron.  

The unit has been active for more than 50 years, even before the introduction of the CH-46.

Prior to 1964, the unit was a UH-34 helicopter squadron that had the same troop transportation mission.  

Pilots, maintenance crew and crewmen of the Phrog believe the transition to the technologically advanced Osprey is a huge move for Marine aviation as it retires these aircraft.

“These 46s have been around since Vietnam,” said Leggett. “Not just the model, but the actual airframe. These are the helicopters that lifted Marines in casevacs.”

However, it’s not just today’s Marines who have a soft spot for these aircraft.  

Field tells of being at static displays during air shows and watching Vietnam veterans look at the bureau number (vehicle identification number for aircraft) and realize it was the exact aircraft that lifted them from dangerous zones.

Staff Sgt. Aaron Beltram, maintainer, HMM 364, 15th MEU, has a similar experience.

“One of the aircraft we had in my last squadron was the exact helicopter my father was shot down in during Vietnam,” said Beltram.  “It was a little strange to be flying in to combat in the exact same helicopter my dad did years before me.”

While the Osprey is able to get more Marines, further distance, in a shorter time, Marines from the 46 community are sad to see it put to rest.

Field hopes the Marine Corps can communicate to the public what a momentous event it is to have this aircraft retired.

“Aircraft come and go, we transition and modernize our fleets all the time across the services, but nowhere has a single airframe (helicopter) been used for so long and been involved in so many different operations,” said Field. “It’s safe to say it has seen service on every continent and all major operations and missions the Marine Corps has taken part in since Vietnam.”

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