Indispensable. That’s how many describe rotor-wing aircraft in the modern Marine Corps.
“They are as important to the Marine Corps today as the rifle or the canteen,” said Ben Kristy, aviation curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
Rotor craft will be the subject of the Eastern Carolina Aviation Heritage Foundation’s annual gala on Friday night. Master of ceremonies of the event is Tom Braaten, a retired major general and former Cherry Point commanding officer who flew helicopters in the Marine Corps. John Rader, a retired Marine colonel and Boeing executive, is the scheduled speaker of the event and will address the newest bird in the fleet, the MV-22 Osprey.
“The Marine Corps was the first service branch to openly embrace the helicopter,” said Kristy. “The helicopter becomes a crucial technology after atomic weapons become widely spread around the globe primarily because once the Soviets had atomic weapons we couldn’t do another Iwo Jima style amphibious assault. The landing fleet would have been to luring of a target, so the Marine Corps, in order to be able to continue its core mission of amphibious assault, had to find a way to get Marines from ship to shore while also disbursing the invasion fleet so you wouldn’t such a good target.”
The early helicopters were small, but the Marine Corps would see the potential for the development of larger craft and put the practice of delivering Marines ashore using helicopters during the Korean Conflict in the 1950s.
“By the end of the Korean War, Marines had technology and property type helicopters to make this concept of vertical envelopment work in combat,” said Fred Allison, the Marine Corps’ oral historian at Quantico, Va. “The transformation was just fundamental for the Marine Corps and the Marine Corps led the way in the development of the helicopter.”
The various uses of the helicopter have been expanded. They carry cargo, personnel, mail and supplies along with supporting ground troops and extracting casualties.
Some of the early transport helicopters were supplemented with machine guns and rocket pods that added an assault role to the craft.
“In the mid-1960s, the first helicopter gunship was developed and that was the AH-1 Cobra and the Marine Corps bought those and employed them in Vietnam,” Allison said. “They have proven to be a real asset to infantry troops in combat in providing close air support.”
Meanwhile, the Osprey has served as an upgrade to the CH-46 helicopter, allowing for greater range, faster speeds and more troop capacity.
“In a lot of ways, it’s a game-changer because of the speed and the range it has,” Kristy said. “The Marine Corps is really coming to grips now with how many new opportunities the Osprey opens up for long-range and high-speed missions. We can now deploy much farther inland than we could ever go before with the (CH-)46. We can get there faster. It really changes a lot of what the (Marine Expeditionary Unit) capabilities truly are.”
Along with the Osprey, the Marine Corps continues to upgrade with newer models of the Cobra and Huey helicopters, and the future could include even more innovations.
“Much farther down range, maybe 20 or 30 years, I think it’s highly likely you will see some type of tilt-rotor gunship in some form,” Kristy said. “The Osprey today can fly much farther and faster than any of its escorts, so I think you will see some development of that. It may not be manned. It’s likely you will see an unmanned tilt-rotor escort gunship of some ilk.”
The helicopter also provides disaster relief, most recently with Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
In the skies around Havelock, the CH-46 Pedro helicopters are frequently assisting with the transport of motor vehicle crash victims to hospitals as well as assisting with searches. The helicopters played a prominent role in the rescue of flood victims during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
“We’ve seen it over and over again, if you look at history, it has proved the utility of helicopters in medevac operations,” Allison said. “Many lives have been saved. The helicopter is one of the greatest inventions ever for the modern military. It’s transformational.”
The Eastern Carolina Aviation Heritage Foundation Gala is scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Havelock Tourist and Event Center. Tickets are $50 per person or $90 per couple. Table sponsorships are $300.
For more information, call the tourist center at 444-4348, email AOhlensehlen@havelocknc.us or go online to www.ecaviationheritage.com.