Monday, February 6, 2012

Big Cat VertRep

Wed 3/30/2011
Flight Quarters, Flight Quarters!
We recently rendezvous-ed (?) with USNS Alan Shepard to transfer ammunition from our holds to hers--not in itself an unusual evolution. What was interesting was that the entire flight deck-to-flight deck Vertrep was carried out by one of Shepard's aircraft, a Puma heavy-lift helicopter. I thought you might like a few photos of a Big Cat.
Pumas travel in pairs, attached to deployed AKE-type ships like Shepard to give them even more lifting power than our own Knighthawk helos. They are crewed and maintained by civilian contractors, another contrast with our Navy HSC Detachment, which limits their utility in certain situations (you can't arm a civilian aircraft with an M240 machine gun or Hellfire missiles, investigate suspected pirate motherships or perform Combat Search and Rescue with it, among other missions), but it DOES give the Dry Cargo/Ammunition ships like Shepard an impressive airlift capability.
The Pumas were contracted from an Alaskan oilfield support company back in 2004 to take up the heavy-lift mission when the previously used helo, the CH-46 Seaknight, was stood-down from Navy service, the majority being transferred to USMC use. The '46 had carried out the heavy Vertrep mission for the better part of forty years, and done it well; without an aircraft with similar attributes we would have lost a significant logistical capability. Enter the Big Cats.
The Puma is not universally loved and accepted throughout the Fleet; if you ask Navy aircrews they will tell you they dislike the Civilian-manned Cats and some cruiser and destroyer personnel I have talked to also evince a lack of confidence in having a Civilian aircraft hovering over their flight decks. Ask an MSC mariner and you'll probably get a very different reaction, somewhat along the lines of a complaint about the large size of HSC Dets (20-25 Officers and Enlisted) and the more extensive flight experience of the contract pilots giving them a professional edge. 
 I think there is a fair amount of parochialism involved here; in reality we cannot accomplish our many missions without both types of aircraft, and both types of personnel. Without a heavy-lifter it would be that much more difficult to transfer ammunition and equipment loads between ships, making for longer and more dangerous connected replenishment (ConRep) operations. For my own part, I am happy to have the Puma carrying part of the load; it is a proven aircraft flown by seasoned pilots, and I never tire of the "ballet" performed by these huge helos as they sling pallets of 5-inch bullets and thousand-pound bombs across the gap between ships.
Hail Puma!

Tom Epps
Able Seaman
USNS Arctic
Indian Ocean

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