History in the making
Local Marine F/A-18 squadron is first to deploy from aircraft carrier
Published Thursday December 7 2006
The Beaufort Gazette

The Beaufort-based Marines and sailors who recently returned from Iraq never expected to be there when they left for the USS Enterprise in the spring.

However, they were sure glad they packed their

body armor and rifles when they had two days to carry out a historic deployment from the aircraft carrier to Camp Al-Asad, Iraq, in August. It was the first time a Marine F/A-18 squadron has deployed from an aircraft carrier.

"There was a lot of discussion and talk about it for a couple of weeks," said Lt. Col. Michael Orr, commanding officer of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251, the one jet squadron out of the three aboard the Enterprise to go ashore.

While based solely on the aircraft carrier, the

22 pilots of VMFA-251, called the "Thunderbolts,"

and Navy Strike Fighter Squadron 86, or the "Sidewinders," supported ground combat missions

in Afghanistan.

During the deployment, though, the Navy needed to provide additional support for operations in Iraq but decided to keep the carrier in the Gulf of Oman to continue its missions in Afghanistan, Orr said.

"It made sense to move ashore," he said, adding that since Al Asad, in the Al Anbar province, is a Marine base, the Navy decided to send the one Marine fighter squadron to operate from land. "It's showing the flexibility of Naval aviation."

With no amphibious ships to take the 140 Thunderbolts and more than 20 Marines and sailors with specialized maintenance skills, the member were taken ashore in an intricate airborne shuttling service that they had only eight days to plan.

It took about 10 hours over two days to move the Marines and sailors from the Enterprise to Al Asad in a combination of carrier onboard delivery aircraft and Navy helicopters to take them ashore, which meant even more hours bumming around on the carrier deck. Then they were picked up in a cargo plane for the final leg of the journey to Iraq, Orr said.

The majority of the squadron working out of Iraq, while a few remained on the Enterprise, created logistical nightmares, especially with mail delivery, Orr said, since they didn't have time to leave forwarding addresses. Extra air mail missions were required.

The trip to Iraq was a homecoming of sorts for Cpl. German Albalopez, a fixed-wing aircraft power plants mechanic with VMFA-251, because he was able to reunite with his wife, Lance Cpl. Lyndsi Albalopez, an automotive organizational mechanic with Beaufort-based Marine Wing Support Squadron 273 who arrived a few days later at Al Asad.

He tried to surprise his wife by meeting her when she got off the plane in Iraq, adding when he left in late spring, they didn't expect to see each other for 1 1/2 years with their deployment schedules.

"She saw me, and it was something else," said German, now back in Beaufort while his wife is still in Iraq. "We didn't say anything else. We just hugged. She was crying. She was real happy to see me."

They spent their two months together on the base hanging out and watching movies after their night shifts, though they lived on other sides of the large base.

He last saw her Oct. 21 and plans to spend the holidays with friends.

"I asked her not to cry," German said of their midnight good-bye. "The time goes by so fast, and before you know it, we'll be together again."

Thunderbolt pilots weren't free from the Enterprise, though, as they, Sidewinder and other Enterprise-based pilots rotated from supporting missions in Iraq to an intense weekslong ground battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan, coined Operation Medusa, in which they dropped 130 precision weapons from early September to Nov. 1.

"The 2006 summer deployment of the Enterprise Strike Group is historic for a variety of reasons," said Rear Adm. Ray Spicer, commander of the Enterprise Strike Group, in a prepared statement. "From miles traveled, missions flown, distinguished visitors hosted -- this strike group is the epitome of flexibility, engagement and forward presence. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Western Pacific Ocean, this strike group answered the nation's call."

Pilots would have to make sure they flew from the Enterprise at least every 30 days to keep aircraft carrier certified.

Thunderbolt pilots racked up more than usual flight hours, Orr said, with the four squadrons that started out on the Enterprise logging more than 22,500 flight hours, 12,000 of which were on combat missions. The squadrons were mishap free.

"There was synergy between the Navy and Marine Corps teams," said Cmdr. Richard McCormack, commanding officer of VFA-86. "There was a lot of talent and experience to work out at Al Asad. ... The experience was incredible."