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U.S. Air Force Gets Underway on USS Ponce

Navy News Service

Story Number: NNS110401-06

By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathanael Miller

MEDITERRANEAN SEA (NNS) -- The joint capabilities of the U.S. armed forces were on display as amphibious transport dock USS Ponce (LPD 15) served as a staging platform for a detachment of HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters from the U.S. Air Force 56th Rescue Squadron (56th RQS) March 27.

Based out of Royal Air Force Station (RAF) Lakenheath, England, the two helicopters and their support personnel have been forward deployed aboard Ponce in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn, a joint coalition effort to enforce the U.N. resolution 1973 that established a no fly zone over the country of Libya.

The 56th's mission is as simple as its name. Should any coalition aircrew go down for any reason, the Airmen of the 56th RQS will bring them home.

"They sent us out to sit search and rescue alert for the pilots who are flying over Libya," said Lt. Col. Mark Ahrens, a pilot flying with the 56th RQS. "We're covering U.S. and other coalition forces as this is a big joint endeavor,"

So far the 56th RQS's detachment aboard Ponce has not been called upon to go rescue anyone.

"Luckily, not too many bad things have happened because a busy day for us is a bad day for somebody else," said Ahrens. "So we're glad when we don't have a busy day."

The 56th RQS embarked Ponce on March 21, the day a U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle went down over Libya due to mechanical problems.

"It was on the news when that F-15E went down," said Air Force Cpt. John Frederick, "but we had just gotten out here so it ended up being a better solution to send somebody else to go get them."

Frederick added that both pilots had been rescued by friendly forces.

While waiting for a call that they hope will not come, the men of the 56th are adjusting to their sudden transition to a life at sea.

"This is my first time to be stationed on a ship," said Frederick. "We're just getting used to the ship and trying not to step on the toes of the guys who live here."

Tech. Sgt. Ben Ward, an aircrew life support equipment technician, finds the isolation of being part of a sea-borne detachment an interesting challenge because he doesn't have access to the same resources he would ashore.

"We can't just go down to the supply store to get the supplies we need," said Ward.

This isolation from a supply center means that he and his fellow Airmen had to plan carefully when packing their gear into the limited space afforded by the HH-60G helicopter.

Crew chief Staff Sgt. Garrett Fillingham agreed with Ward that the parts issue was a unique challenge.

"We only have the two aircraft, and we can only fit so much on them. So we can only bring so many supplies, and in the middle of the ocean it's kind of hard to get parts," said Fillingham.

He also added that another factor that Sailors have contended with for years is also creating problems for him and his fellow Airmen—salt spray.

"The salt is one of the worst things I've seen. The corrosion—you can really start to see how bad it's affecting the aircraft," said Fillingham.

The saltwater environment has required the 56th RQS's maintainers to step up the frequency of aircraft wash downs. Fillingham said that while aboard Ponce they have to clean the aircraft almost daily to keep the salt corrosion under control. On land, they would not have to wash the aircraft so often to keep them in a high state of readiness.

Life at sea also presents the unique experience of walking on a deck that moves on its own due to high seas. So far, the Airmen of the 56th RQS have experienced generally good weather while aboard Ponce, but every now and then the Mediterranean does throw an unexpected swell that can catch one off guard,
Fillingham added with a smile.

While he has noticed that Ponce's Sailors are not fazed at all by such sudden rolls, he still finds them a surprise.

Chief Master Sgt. Dino Thanos, an aerial gunner with the 56th RQS, agreed that getting one's "sea legs", getting used to the movement of a ship while at sea, was an interesting experience for his Airmen.

Thanos explained that he doesn't find the confined space aboard ship very different from other deployments he's made. No matter where he's been, his aircraft have always been parked in a relatively small area, and the maintenance spaces are minimal. As far as the ship itself, Thanos said Ponce's Sailors are professionals and are some of the easiest people to work with that he has encountered in his career.

"It's been a pleasure to be aboard," said Thanos. "This has been a great naval experience for me and what I call my 'A' team."

As the 56th RQS stands by, hoping not to be called upon but ready to fly if needed, Lt. Col. Ahrens also said the combined 56th Rescue Squadron/ Ponce team has been one of the highlights of his professional experience.

"I think living on the ship has been great," said Ahrens. "Everybody's been fantastic and very courteous, and we've melded together pretty well."

The great working relationship between the Air Force aircrew and Ponce's Sailors is an added bonus and coalition aircrews can rest assured that help is ready to go at a moments notice and is well prepared for the job at hand.

Ponce is part of Kearsarge Expeditionary Strike Group, supporting Operation Odyssey Dawn. Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn is the U.S. Africa Command task force established to provide operational and tactical command and control of U.S. military forces supporting the international response to the unrest in Libya and enforcement of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1973. UNSCR 1973 authorizes all necessary measures to protect civilians in Libya under threat of attack by Qadhafi regime forces. JTF Odyssey Dawn is commanded by U.S. Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, III.

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