The men and women of Helicopter Squadron Light (HSL) 44 are a breed apart. They aren't limited to any specific mission or skill set. They carry out missions that run the gamut of SH-60B capabilities that take them across the globe at a moment's notice and demand a constant state of readiness for the Sailors assigned there. In the helicopter community, HSL-44 is the jack-of-all-trades.
"One of the challenges we have that we really enjoy is having to train for an extremely diverse range of missions," said HSL-44 Commanding Officer, Cmdr. Mike Patterson.
For an HSL-44 air crewman or pilot, there is no such thing as a routine mission. Operations change by the day, and they are expected perform with tactical precision whether performing a search-and-rescue mission or supplying the troops aboard a frigate by vertical replenishment (VERTREP).
"Our sister communities focus on one specific mission, like the HSC [helicopter sea combat] community really focuses on VERTREP; the jet guys do attack and reconnaissance; and the HS [helicopter antisubmarine] guys do carrier operations and sea search and rescues," said Lt. Derek Bintz, HSL-44 SH-60B pilot.
"We do a little bit of everything. One day, we're shooting Hellfire missiles, then we'll turn around and do a VERTREP or an emergency medical evacuation, and the next day we'll be doing a personnel transfer [for] an admiral. Our community is really diverse, and that is unique in the Navy helicopter community because we have secondary [missions] that span all kinds of operations."
HSL-44 deploys in very small numbers. When a mission is announced, a detachment is quickly established from the men and women at the squadron's headquarters at Naval Station Mayport, Fla.
"HSL is a [different] community because we don't go with the typical interdeployment readiness cycle, where the command works toward a deployment as a unit," said HSL-44's Command Master Chief (AW/SW) Mark Dubiel. "Most squadrons work up together with an [air] wing or a ship, and the whole squadron develops that way. HSLs, on the other hand, work on what we call a detachment concept. We're constantly in flux. We have Sailors in each phase of a deployment cycle, so we have to place a priority on properly managing our Sailors. It's a leadership challenge, and it can also be tough on Sailors."
Patterson said the small detachments that deploy eventually become a very tight group that depends on every detachment member to carry their own weight.
"One of the challenges of an HSL squadron is that we're not all together as a unit in the training and deployment cycle," said Patterson. "HSL-44 is approximately 350 Sailors strong, and our detachments are made up of 25 to 28 people and are a mini-squadron. They have an OIC [officer in charge], maybe four or five pilots; a maintenance chief is usually the LCPO [leading chief petty officer], three first class petty officers, and the rest are all maintainers. They live, breathe and fight as a one or two-plane detachment. They do everything that a squadron does within that little group."
Four HSL-44 squadrons are currently deployed to missions across the globe.
"We go to frigates, destroyers and cruisers--all small boys," said Patterson.
"I have two detachments that are deployed right now with the Theodore Roosevelt Strike Group. I have one detachment on USS McInerney (FFG 8) that is finishing up a counternarcotics terrorism deployment, and we have another detachment deployed aboard USS Doyle (FFG 39). They just got underway for seven weeks for a joint-warrior exercise in the Northern Atlantic."
Dubiel said some of the same things that make life in an HSL squadron so challenging are the very same things that develop unmatched leaders for the Navy.
"Of all of the communities I've been in, I think HSL is a great opportunity for midgrade Sailors to develop their leadership skills," said Dubiel. "They go out to a ship or a detachment, and they're thrown into leadership responsibilities earlier than maybe they [would've been] in other communities. When our guys go to sea, they deploy in a very small detachment--usually only around 18 enlisted in the det," said Dubiel.
"You have to be a performer. Everybody is key. You're either in your rack or you're up working on an aircraft. In a traditional squadron, where everyone goes to sea together, you may have three or four airmen from each rate on a shift, but in an HSL squadron, it's vital that everyone contributes in a big way," Dubiel said.
The Sailors of HSL-44 wake up in an ever-changing world and must be prepared to tackle new challenges each day.
"On a two-plane det to the [Persian] Gulf when we detach with a strike group, our primary missions are anti-surface, antisubmarine (ASW), but our secondary missions include medical evacuations, personnel transfers [and] vertical replenishment operations," said Bintz. "In our primary roles, we function as a sensor extension of the ship--that is the anti-surface part. For the ASW platform, we track known submarine contacts."
One of the most unique missions HSL-44 supports as the wings for small boys is the counternarcotic operations in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific Ocean.
"We've seen a lot of success in counternarcotics terrorism missions. With the recent stand-up of 4th Fleet, we now have an increased focus on what is going on in that area of the world. Our dets. are deploying with night-vision goggles and forward-looking infrared; things that make it easier to detect drug-carrying vessels. We had a det that returned about five months ago, and they had four busts during their time in the southern area of operations. That's $250 million of drugs that were kept off our streets as well as a number of people who were detained for eventual prosecution. That mission is awesome, and it's emerging as it continues to grow, and it's an exciting place to be."
Working in conjunction with the ship crew, embarked Coast Guard law enforcement detachments and other agencies, HSL-44's SH-60B helos are used to track and detect drug-runners before their cargo can be sold on American soil.
"When we deploy to the Caribbean or off the coast of South America and focus on antidrug, counternarcotics operations, we track fast boats and fast movers with cocaine or other narcotics. We work in conjunction with our ship and the Coast Guard," said Bintz.
The squadron also plays a pivotal role in support of the combatant's commander mission in the Central Command theater.
"We have involvement in the [war on terror], particularly in the 5th Fleet area of operations," said Patterson. "We do lots of patrols and maintain the safety and security of Iraqi oil platforms."
The squadron also plays a vital role in force protection as HSL-44 helos are used to guard military personnel and assets as they traverse some of the most dangerous maritime straits and channels.
"Whenever we make a critical strike group transit, like through the Strait of Hormuz or the Strait of Gibraltar--any vulnerable position--our aircraft are either flying or ready to respond if there is a threat to the strike group."
The squadron has both sea and shore duty billets, but the personnel assigned to HSL-44 on a shore rotation are expected to contribute every bit as much as their sea-rotation counterparts.
"When you come to an HSL squadron on shore duty, it's challenging. What I tell my shore-duty guys is that it's like you're on sea duty," said Dubiel. "My responsibility is ensuring the success of the detachments that are deployed so that means that if one of our detachments needs help on a Saturday, we don't wait until Monday morning. We'll bring somebody in; we'll ship them something; we'll look up the information they need; and we'll communicate with them. In terms of focus and dedication, my shore [personnel have] a sea-duty mentality."
According to their commanding officer, the Sailors turning wrenches and making sure the birds are able to perform their missions at sea are the backbone of HSL-44.
"The real story is the guys who get the aircraft ready to fly," said Patterson. "They work 12 on and 12 off, every day while they are underway. It's because of their commitment first and foremost that we're able to accomplish our mission time after time."
McCammack is assigned to Defense Media Activity - Anacostia, Washington, D.C.
Story and photos by MC2(SW/AW) Jason McCammack
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|Title Annotation:||Helicopter Squadron Light|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2008|
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