‘Red Lions’ prowl desert skies

19 Feb 2007 | Cpl. Zachary Dyer

The CH-53D “Sea Stallion” helicopter has been transporting Marines and cargo around combat zones since the Vietnam War. Despite their age, Sea Stallions and the Marines who fly them have proven they still have what it takes to be the Marine Corps’ heavy lift helicopter while supporting the Global War on Terrorism. 

As the second CH-53D squadron to deploy in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the “Lucky Red Lions” of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 363 are providing the Marines on the ground with the support they need.

The Red Lions deployed to Iraq in October 2006, replacing a fellow CH-53D squadron, HMH-463.

“This latest series is the first time that 53D squadrons have deployed here,” said Lt. Col. Allen D. Broughton, the Red Lions’ commanding officer.

“They did send a (detachment) here with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit a few years ago. But as a full squadron ‘463 was the first, we were the second, and the “Ugly Angels” (of HMH-362) will be the third.”

The Red Lions, who earned the nickname “Irishmen” because of the clover on their logo, hit the ground running and continued the success set forth by the Marines before them, according to Broughton.

“It’s gone really well,” said Broughton of the Red Lions’ deployment. “We continued the fine work of HMH-463. We learned from them and kept excelling from the point of turnover back in October.”

The role of the Red Lions in 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) is to provide assault support to Marines on the ground.

“Assault support, to keep it very general, is just hauling people and cargo,” said Broughton. “The Irishmen are really just truck drivers and bus drivers, and we move cargo effectively and efficiently throughout the Al Anbar Province.”

The Marines of HMH-363 transport an average of 4,000 passengers and 200,000 pounds of cargo every month. They also average about 600 hours of flight time, which is four times what they would fly back home at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay, according to Broughton.

“We do assault support, and we do assault support very well,” said Broughton.

To excel as much as they have, the Red Lions had to overcome a few obstacles, including the fact that half the squadron had never deployed before, according to Sgt. Maj. Roy H. Smith, HMH-363 sergeant major.

“We came here with an extremely young squadron,” said Smith. “For over half the squadron, this is their first deployment ever, because a lot of them came to the squadron about seven to eight months before we deployed, straight out of school. The younger ones on their first deployment have done extremely well.”

The Red Lions also learned a few things that will help them the next time they deploy to Iraq, according to Smith.

“There are lot of lessons learned since we’ve been out here,” added Smith. “The aircraft flies a little different, handles a little different from the cold weather. A lot of the parts out here don’t last as long because of the wear and tear and the elements.”

Despite the obstacles and the increased operational tempo, the Red Lions have excelled at mission readiness and accomplishment.

“We have the oldest aircraft out here and the Marines have done a good job of keeping them in the sky,” said Smith.

In fact, the operational tempo has turned out to be a good thing, according to Capt. Marvin J. Gates, a Red Lions’ pilot.

“The good part about the flight time we’re getting is getting the chance to practice shooting the approaches, and doing what we’ve been training to do,” said Gates. “That’s probably the highlight of the deployment, doing what we’ve trained to do.”