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USS Essex Embarks 31st MEU Aviation Combat Element

Navy NewsStand

Story Number: NNS100125-06
Release Date: 1/25/2010 11:22:00 AM

By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Greg Johnson, USS Essex (LHD 2) Public Affairs

USS ESSEX, At Sea (NNS) -- Forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) welcomed aboard the AV-8B Harrier jet aircraft of Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 311 from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit's (MEU) Aviation Combat Element (ACE) Jan. 21 while at sea.

Essex Sailors helped the aircraft land aboard ship for the first time since the squadron completed a fall patrol in November 2009.

"It feels nice to get back out here on the flight deck again," said Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) 3rd Class Patrick Neimeyer, a landing signalman. "This is our job, and it's what we like to do, so I'm sure we'll all be on top of our game."

The deployment will be the first time VMA 311 has embarked Essex since 2006. Although the unit consists of new personnel, pilots and crew members, the VMA 311 crew looks forward to repeating the squadron's past success aboard Essex.

"We're looking forward to accomplishing as much training as we can and to integrate with the MEU," said Marine Corps Capt. Jessie Pitzrick, a VMA-311 Harrier pilot. "It should be good experience for all the newer pilots. They'll get a chance to work with the Navy and the MEU and see how they operate as a whole."

Along with VMA-311's Harriers, the ACE brings an assortment of helicopters assigned to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265 (Reinforced), including CH-53E Sea Stallions, CH-46E Sea Knights, AH-1W Super Cobras and UH-1N Hueys.

During a spring patrol, Essex Sailors and 31st MEU Marines will employ these aircraft throughout a series of multinational exercises designed to build relationships and enhance operational readiness between U.S. and Western Pacific partner nations.

"The ACE brings with it tremendous capabilities and flexibility," said Lt. Matthew Baker, Essex's aircraft handling officer. "They can support all warfare areas, whether it's an assault,
troop transport or humanitarian effort."

Despite working with new personnel, the Sailors of Essex's air department do not expect to miss a step during spring patrol. Their confidence stems from extensive preparation and intense focus, said Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) (AW/SW) Kevin Johnson, V-1 division leading chief petty officer.

"Everyone on both sides of the house are trained professionals," said Johnson. "We're all properly trained and many of us bring a lot of experience to the table. I don't expect any issues at all while working with the new group."

The transition from one ACE to another is seamless because much of the training for both pilots and flight deck crew is standardized throughout the fleet, said Baker.

"When you change out, all you really need to do is get them familiar with the ship in terms of the aircraft and the flight deck," said Baker. "I'm fully confident that we'll transition smoothly because of how standardized our training really is. We won't lose anything in terms of operational capability."

The Marines of VMA-311 will not be the only newcomers to Essex this patrol. While its pilots will be looking for valuable experience in the coming months, so too will many of the junior Sailors working on Essex's flight deck.

"I'm really looking forward to working toward my qualifications and getting my [aviation warfare specialist] pin," said Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) Airman Michelle Moore, an Essex chock and chainman on her first Navy deployment since enlisting in the Navy. "This deployment should be a great opportunity to build on what I learned in school and see the mechanics behind everything."

Essex, commanded by Capt. Troy Hart, is the lead ship of the only forward-deployed U.S. amphibious ready group and serves as the flagship for Combined Task Force (CTF) 76, the Navy's only forward-deployed amphibious force commander. CTF 76 is headquartered at White Beach Naval Facility, Okinawa, Japan, with a detachment in Sasebo, Japan.

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