Pedro takes final flight at Cherry Point

The old orange and grey birds have taken their last flight.

About 300 military officials and members of the community watched as the last HH-46E Pedro helicopters took their final flight Friday night at Miller’s Landing along the Neuse River at Cherry Point.

The evening was one of mixed emotions, somber in that it marked an end to search and rescue missions at Cherry Point but celebratory for a nearly 51-year job well done.

“I think for so long, the Pedro has been like this icon that has flown over our skies,” Havelock Mayor Will Lewis said. “It doesn’t just provide security, but it is just a real piece that the military has that dovetails our civilian and military communities together. It’s something that we can all look at that we all interface with. It’s landed at our parks. It’s been to our hospitals. It’s landed in our streets. I think that it’s kind of sad that that connection is going away.”

Brenda Wilson, head of the Havelock Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Committee that served the Pedro crews a special barbecue dinner on Tuesday night, hates to see the helicopters go.

“It was sad for me because I love to see that aircraft,” she said. “It’s not just our military that is really going to be hurt by this. It’s going to be our whole community, both military and civilians. When you used to see it go over, you used to think something bad is happening, but on the other hand, if you thought you were in need of them and you heard that noise, it would be rejoiceful.”

Not only did Pedro crews help rescue military personnel, but also they helped area communities in searching for missing people in the woods or in area waters and even transportated wreck victims to hospitals.

“It’s a big loss,” said George Liner, a Craven County Commissioner from Havelock. “Everybody should be able to understand the reasoning why. There’s only three or four of this platform still available, so it’s something that the Marine Corps had to think about and do, but for the community, it’s a big, big loss.”

The Marine Corps announced last year its plans to end Cherry Point’s search and rescue missions, citing budget cuts. In 2014, Pedro helicopters were called on for 32 search and rescue missions, 11 over water and 21 over land, with 16 coming from civilian authorities.

The search and rescue function will now fall on helicopters coming from Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City.

Raymond Leggett, president of CarolinaEast Medical System in New Bern, told the crowd of how Pedro crews went out in poor weather when other aircraft couldn’t to transport a woman who had a heart attack on a cruise ship to the hospital.

“Pedro will go get you. They are not afraid of the weather,” Leggett said.

Tom Braaten, a retired Marine major general and former commander of Cherry Point, said the Marines and sailors who make up the helicopter crews were the heart and soul of Pedro.

“You almost have to be part of the Pedro team to understand and appreciate it,” Braaten said.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd in 1999 when flooding ravaged the eastern part of the state, Pedro flew into service, rescuing 399 people in three days and then delivering needed supplies to isolated residents, Braaten said.

Braaten, who said his last flight before retirement from the Marine Corps was in Pedro, told the crowd of a rescue near Bogue Inlet in rough conditions that called for a rescue swimmer to be deployed in 50-degree water and high seas.

“That’s the kind of thing that Pedro has done for us,” Braaten said. “They leave with a fine record of performance. The heart and soul of Pedro stays on.”

Pedro helicopters have been operating out of Cherry Point since 1957, when the H-2 Sea Sprite took on the call sign Pedro, the a Navy code for a search and rescue asset. The squadron eventually transitioned into HH-46 helicopters in 1964.