CAMP AL QAIM, Iraq -- The UH-1 Huey helicopter is one of the oldest aircraft in the Marine Corps’ war arsenal. Like its counterpart, the AH-1 Cobra, Hueys have been around since the days of Vietnam, and in Iraq, the helicopters named for utility are living up to their title.
At Camp Al Qaim, Iraq, a detachment from Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369 provides the rotary wing close-air support for the ground forces in the area. They know firsthand the importance of the less glorified cousin of the Cobra.
Hueys fly with crews of four, two pilots and two crew chiefs. In the air, the crew chiefs man the weapons, one pilot serves as a navigator and the other controls the aircraft.
“In a situation like this (urban combat) you need the Huey’s weapons,” said Maj. John B. Barranco, the detachment’s officer-in-charge and Boston, native. “Smaller weapons help minimize collateral damage.”
In addition to rockets controlled by the pilots, Hueys boast two weapons systems manned by the crew chiefs. A .50 caliber machine gun on the helicopter’s left side, and a weapon on the right side that can thousands of .762 millimeter rounds per minute.
In the hands of skilled crew chiefs, the weapons are deadly and extremely accurate. The Cobras, as lethal as they are, can only fire at targets directly in front of them. Their field of fire is nothing like the Huey’s, and in close combat situations, that flexibility is necessary for success.
“The Cobra is an amazing platform to deliver ordnance, and our pilots do it extremely well,” said 1st Lt. Page C. Payne, an Austin native and Huey pilot with the Gunfighters of HML/A-369. “But without Hueys, Cobras are vulnerable in certain situations.”
“We have eyes on the target faster than anyone else,” said Sgt. Joshua D. Gilbow, a Dayton, Ohio, native, and Huey crew chief with HML/A-369. “That raises everyone’s situational awareness.”
The success of the two helicopters’ mission is evidenced by the reaction of the Marines on the ground and the insurgents they fight. Whenever Marines find themselves in firefights, they said what makes the insurgents scatter quickest is the sound of helicopter blades.
“We were ambushed one day with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades,” said Cpl. Josh F. Archer, a scout sniper with 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. “The helicopters were there in minutes and the insurgents fled. They (the helicopters) basically saved us.”
While Gilbow concedes close-air support is the Huey’s most important mission, it’s definitely not the only one. The Huey’s three radios allow commanders to use the Hueys while directing their troops on the ground.
The UH-1 also takes part in reconnaissance missions and occasionally in Al Qaim, a helicopter from HML/A-369 evacuates a casualty in the middle of combat to safety, saving Marines’ lives.
In an environment where the mission can always change, having an aircraft that is the best at nothing but very good at everything is invaluable.
“We have a very dynamic role and do a little bit of everything,” said Payne. “We’re the only platform that can shoot, do casualty evacuations, support command and control missions and do escorts for convoys. My roommate is (an infantryman) and as much as he (chides) us, he’ll tell you there’s no better sound than a helicopter coming over the ridge.”