PANAMA CITY, Fla – One of the only two MH-53E helicopter squadrons to fly mine warfare missions in the U.S. Navy’s Fleet continues training at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division (NSWC PCD) until mid-March for reasons: mine warfare expertise and location.
Home ported in Norfolk, Va., HM-14’s detachment comprised of 150 Sailors arrived in Panama City, Fla., on Feb. 24, 2013 to conduct Airborne Mine Countermeasure (AMCM) training in the Joint Gulf Test Range waters located in the Gulf of Mexico.
"This is the place where the expertise resides for mine warfare missions," said Lcdr. Jim Schwarze. "Mine warfare is important to the U.S. Navy and flying MH-53Es and towing against realistic mine threats allow us to stay prepared to keep the sea lanes open. The MH-53E is the most unique helicopter in the world."
Schwarze noted that given today’s technologies, mines are inexpensive to fashion and can cause multi-millions of dollars' worth of damage and injure or kill Sailors.
"We fly MH53E sea dragons in the Navy for AMCM missions with sweep and hunting capabilities that are deployed from the back of the aircraft, to include the MK-106 and the AN/AQS-24A Sonar utilizing the joint gulf test range," he said. "The Joint Gulf Test Range offers us the chance to train in a real environment using simulated but realistic mine threats – and the weather is much nicer here this time of year than it is in Virginia."
In 1945, the Secretary of the Navy established the U.S. Navy Mine Countermeasures Station to provide the U.S. Navy with a year round, mine warfare test area. The first AMCM flight was conducted in the waters of St. Andrew Bay just off the NSWC PCD landing pad in the early 1950s and today, the U.S. Navy continues to utilize the national asset that is the Joint Gulf Test Range flying both MH-53E and MH-60S. NSWC PCD flew MH-53Es for mine warfare research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) missions until 2009 when MH-60s were phased in for Littoral Combat Ship mine warfare mission module package integration support.
Capitalizing on the year-round, test-conducive weather available in Panama City, Fla., the Sailors are working on 24 hours a day in 12-hour shifts, thereby allowing maintenance Sailors, like AE1 (AW) Stephen Elo, of Medford, Ore., to maintain the helicopters in between airborne helicopter training missions. For these AMCM missions in particular, the squadron is training with a MK-106 tow sled, a magnetic and acoustic influence sweep system, and the AN/AQS-24 sonar.
"I supervise 28 Sailors and we’re all working to maintain the helicopters and keep them flying. These are maintenance intensive aircraft. We have to put in 55 hours of maintenance for every one hour of flight on each aircraft," said Elo.
MH-53Es support not only mine warfare missions, but also can respond to humanitarian civic assistance and disaster response missions flying with at least two pilots, two aircrew members and a load of equipment of up to 32,000 pounds. One example of the aircraft’s agility was realized during Hurricane Sandy response in New York City.
"We anchored off the coast of New York, and flew to the base of the Statue of Liberty in support of the dewatering missions there," said Lt. Eric Quarles, HM-14 Maintenance Officer. "We flew crew crews and generators there and up to 18,000 pounds of cargo, people, equipment, food, and water."
NSWC PCD is primarily a research, development, test and evaluation technical center of excellence by providing the U.S. Navy with in-service engineering, technical warrant holder, and real-world technical support in mine warfare, amphibious and expeditionary warfare, naval special warfare, diving and life support and other missions that occur in the littorals.