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Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron Fifteen (HM-15)
"Blackhawks"

On 1 September 2012, Captain Paul Esposito, commander, Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic (HSCWINGLANT), relieved Commander Sara Santoski, commanding officer of Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron Fifteen, due to loss of confidence in Santoski's ability to command. Master Chief Petty Officer Bobby T. Anderson was also relieved of his duties as the Squadron's command master chief due to unsatisfactory performance. These actions came after a fatal crash of one of the Squadron's MH-53E helicopters on 19 July 2012 and another incident on 22 August 2012. Initial findings from a subsequent assessment showed that Commander Santoski failed to strictly enforce appropriate operational, maintenance and safety standards and that she failed to ensure a proper command climate.

The mission of Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron Fifteen (HM-15) is to maintain a world-wide 72 hour Airborne Mine Countermeasures rapid deployment posture and a 4 aircraft forward-deployed Airborne Mine Countermeasures and Vertical On-Board Delivery capability in the Arabian Gulf as part of Task Force 52. HM-15 is a United States Navy helicopter squadron based at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia. Nicknamed the "Blackhawks", it is staffed by both active duty and reserve personnel.

Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron Fifteen was established on 2 January 1987. As the first of two deployable airborne mine countermeasures squadrons to receive the Sikorsky MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter, a derivative of the RH-53D and CH-53E helicopters, HM-15 began transition ground and fight training in Norfolk, VA. On 21 April 1987, HM-15 was ordered by the Chief of Naval Operations to execute a duty station change from Norfolk, VA, to Naval Air Station Alameda, CA; effective 1 October 1987.

The Blackhawks of HM-15 began initial squadron flight operations in July 1987, with the receipt of their first MH-53E, and continued in Norfolk through September 1987. On 28 September 1987, three squadron aircraft departed NAS Norfolk and arrived at NAS Alameda on 1 October 1987, officially reporting for duty under operational and administrative control of Commander, Anti-Submarine Warfare Wing, U.S. Pacific Fleet.

November 1987 marked a major flight training milestone for HM-15 as initial AMCM flight training commenced, employing the MK-105 Magnetic Influence Minesweeping System (Hydrofoil), the MK-104 Acoustic Minesweeping System and the AN/SPU-1W Shallow Water Magnetic Influence Minesweeping System. In December, the squadron disassembled and loaded two MH-53E helicopters into a USAF C-5A Galaxy aircraft, certifying the MH-53E air transport capability for the Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

From January through June of 1988, squadron flight and ground training continued to focus heavily on AMCM operations using the AN/AQS-14 Side Scan Sonar Minehunting System and the MK-103 Mechanical Moored Minesweeping System. By June, the squadron had developed requisite proficiency in all mission areas and was selected by the Chief of Naval Operations to perform operational flight support for Commander, Operational Test and Evaluation Force for Follow-on Test and Evaluation of the MH-53E helicopter.

In July 1988, the squadron successfully completed a Mine Warfare Readiness Certification Inspection (MRCI) and in August achieved Initial Operating Capability. In October 1988, the first HM-15 detachment deployed to NAS North Island to conduct minesweeping operations. In September 1989, the squadron embarked onboard the USS Tripoli (LPH-10) for PACEX-89, a joint exercise conducted throughout the Western Pacific with our Allies from Japan, Korea, and the Republic of the Philippines. Since then, the squadron has fielded numerous detachments throughout the West Coast.

In October 1989, HM-15 provided significant airlift support for the disaster relief efforts following the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake thereby earning the Humanitarian Service Medal.

From January 1991 through April 1992, HM-15 deployed a three aircraft, 100-man detachment to the Persian Gulf in direct support of the Operations DESERT SHIELD & DESERT STORM. The Blackhawks transported over 3.2 million pounds of cargo and more than 4,000 personnel in support of combat units in theater.

In July 1992, the squadron successfully exercised "split site" operations from the USS Juneau (LPD-10) and NAS North Island during Exercise TANDEM THRUST-92, Commander Mine Countermeasures Group ONE's first integrated (Air, Surface, and EOD) mine countermeasure exercise. The first deployment of the MH-53E aboard a LPD-class ship, the squadron simultaneously employed mechanical, influence and minehunting systems. In the fall of 1992, HM-15 was designated the lead squadron for developing AMCM tactics for use in the Very Shallow Water (VSW) environment. VSW tactics continue to be crucial to the ability of the Navy to project force "Forward From the Sea." A series of five developmental amphibious exercises were undertaken culminating in Exercise KERNEL RAIDER 93 in the fall of 1993.

Tasked by COMINEWARCOM, the squadron redirected its operation's focus and conducted trial operations designed to provide Amphibious Readiness Groups (ARGs) an organic MCM capability by embarking four aircraft to sail with the ARG when involved in mine countermeasures operations. Additionally, the squadron conducted Exercise CASUAL GANDER from NAS Whidbey Island to develop deep water Minehunting procedures and tactics to allow hunting in the deeper Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs), normal transit channels that our forces would use to speed to a conflict area. Exercise RIMPAC 94 saw the squadron implement these new procedures underway, integrated with surface and EOD MCM assets. Follow-on JCS tasking in Korea, later that year, enabled the squadron to build upon their earlier experiences in developing minehunting procedures in SLOCs.

During midyear 1994, the CNO directed the reshaping of the AMCM force structure. Prior to 1994, the Navy had 5 helicopter minesweeping squadrons, 2 active-duty, 2 Reserve, and a fleet readiness squadron. The size and operational costs of these squadrons caused many of them to be phased out. Following a major restructuring, there were only 2 surviving squadrons: HM-15, relocated from Alameda, California, to Corpus Christi, Texas, and HM-14 at Naval Air Station, Norfolk, Virginia. The 2 Reserve squadrons, the Alameda-based HM-19 and the Norfolk-based HM-18, were disestablished and integrated as the Reserve element of the 2 active-duty squadrons. The fleet readiness squadron was disestablished entirely.

With integration, HM-14 has 700 officers and Sailors, active and Reserve, 12 MH-53E Sea Dragons and twice the minesweeping equipment it had before. Four officers and 160 enlisted personnel are TARs (Training and Administration of Reserves) who serve full time, to ensure the Selected Reservists (SELRES) - 18 officers and 76 enlisted - receive training for mobilization and peacetime missions. A regular drill weekend is scheduled each month to train and support the majority of the Reserve element. An additional weekend is set aside as "fly weekend" to give Reserve pilots time in the cockpit. Shifts of day, night, weekend and support checks keep the squadron operational 24-hours a day.

This resulted from the integration of the Blackhawks of HM-15 with its reserve sister squadron, the Golden Bears of HM-19. This was the first integration effort of its kind in the U.S. Navy, creating a squadron of over 750 regular, TAR, and Selected Reserve Personnel. On 5 November 1994, the "new" HM-15, the largest helicopter squadron in the Navy, with 17 MH-53E aircraft, stood ready to complete rapid response AMCM operations anywhere in the world.

By 28 January 1995, HM-15 successfully completed a MRCI, receiving its "proof-of-concept" certification from COMINEWARCOM as being fully integrated and ready for deployment as an "integrated force." On 15 April 1995, the squadron deployed aboard the USS Tripoli (LPH-10) for Exercise KERNEL BLITZ 95. During this exercise, HM-15 achieved the first ever simultaneous launching of three MK-105 minesweeping platforms in thirty minutes, setting a new benchmark for AMCM MK-105 operations from an LPH-class ship.

On 20 May 1995, HM-15 deployed to South Korea for Exercise RSO&I-95, exercising its 72-hour rapid response capability. Follow-on tasking to participate in minesweeping and Minehunting operations around the South Korean peninsula came in the form of Exercise FREEDOM BANNER 95, validating AMCM Expeditionary Mine Warfare Operations for the first time in twelve years.

In the fall of 1995, the Blackhawks began to execute their plan for the squadron's relocation from NAS Alameda, CA to NAS Corpus Christi, TX, as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure decision to close NAS Alameda. On 30 June 1996, HM-15 officially changed its permanent duty station to NAS Corpus Christi, TX and became the first air element to relocate at the Mine Warfare Center of Excellence.

From late summer of 1996 to spring 1997, the Blackhawks focused on increased training and readiness following their move from California. In addition to local area flight training, evens included short shipboard operations periods, MK-105 detachments to Panama City, Florida, multiple Assist Visits and inspections from different senior commands a culminated in the successful completion of an MRCI in May 97. With HM-15's readiness back at high level, it immediately sent a detachment of four aircraft to the southern California oparea to participate in Exercise KERNEL BLITZ 97. The det. embarked on and operated from the USS Denver (LPD-9) throughout the exercise. Following KERNAL BLITZ, HM-15 embared the mine countermeasueres support ship, USS Inchon (MCS-12), with eight aircraft and over 400 personnel to engage in a joint training exercise (JFTX 97-3) off the coast of North Carolina. This exercise marked the first time that HM-15 had conducted an east coast exercise and reported under the operational command of Mine Countermeasures Squadron Two.

In early 1999 HM-15 was embarked on USS Inchon which was operating in the Adriatic Sea, supporting Operation Shining Hope, a joint, combined NATO and U.S. military humanitarian relief effort in conjunction with civilian relief agencies. Inchon departed its homeport of Naval Station Ingleside, Texas on March 1 for a routine, five-month deployment to the Mediterranean and Arabian Gulf. On April 6, Inchon was redirected to the Adriatic Sea to participate in humanitarian relief operations.

In its 2005 BRAC Recommendations, DoD recommended to relocate HM-15 to The relocation of Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 15 (HM-15) to to Naval Station Norfolk. Relocating the unit to Norfolk would single site all Mine Warfare Aircraft in a fleet concentration area. This location would better support the HM-15 mission by locating them closer to the C-5 transport Air Port of Embarkation for overseas employment and mine countermeasures ship and helicopter coordinated exercises.

On 19 July 2012, an MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter assigned to the US Navy's Helicopter Mine Countermeasure Squadron 15 crashed 58 miles southwest of Muscat, Oman while conducting heavy lift support operations. HM-15 had been conducting operations in the region, including in cooperation with the USS Ponce, and may have had a detachment assigned to the ship. The Department of Defense immediately noted that the crash was not due to hostile activity, though the status of the aircraft's 5 crewmembers was not initially clear. Another MH-53E helicopter assigned to the same squadron was sent to the scene, where it provided search and rescue assistance. At least 2 of the 5 crew members were later reported to have died in the crash.

On 22 August 2012, an MH-53E from HM-15 made a hard landing at Bahrain International Airport in Bahrain following an engine malfunction. The incident caused damage to the tail section of the aircraft, but no one was injured. The incident came roughly a month after a fatal crash of an MH-53E from HM-15 of the coast of Oman on 19 July 2012.




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