Roger Connor, National Air and Space Museum
"In my mind it represents what multi-mission really means."
Gil Birklund, former commanding officer, Helicopter Combat Support Squadron Two (HC-2)
On Thursday, July 30, over 17,000 pounds of history slowly lifted into the sky above Naval Station Norfolk for the last time. For generations, the CH-46E Sea Knight pictured above served Sailors and Marines on deployments to destinations as diverse as Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but its mission that day was to travel to a destination only about an hour away by air: The Smithsonian Institution's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, just outside Dulles International Airport, west of Washington DC. The museum will display the aircraft after its arrival on Saturday, August 1, until a new wing of the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia, is completed.
Among the personnel of Marine Corps Reserve Medium Squadron 774 (HMM-774) who had gathered to watch the event were two retired naval aviators with extensive experience in the aircraft popularly known by both Marine Corps and Navy pilots as the "Phrog." They watched in silence as the helicopter, painted almost exactly as it would have been a half-century ago, ambled towards the flight line, seemingly resigned to the fact that the last of the Phrogs serving at Naval Station Norfolk will soon be gone.
Although Tom Stites was a retired Navy officer who commanded two Helicopter Combat Support Squadrons (HC-8 in Norfolk and what was then HC-3 at Naval Air Station North Island) during his career, he readily admitted that without the Marine Corps, the Navy might never have begun using the CH-46 in the first place. "They were the drivers," Stites said, pointing out that surplus Marine Corps Phrogs were used to establish the first two Navy squadrons that utilized the helicopter, HC-6 at NAS Norfolk and HC-3 in San Diego, in September 1967.
Watching the helicopter recede into the distance with Stites was Gil Birklund, another retired naval aviator and CH-46 pilot who once commanded HC-2 in Norfolk. "This is emotional," said Birklund. You crawl into one of these when you're 23 years old... We spent our whole adult lives in these things."
"There was nothing better," Birklund said of the Phrog. "In multiple missions, all kinds of weather, all parts of the world." "It's iconic in the U.S. Navy and in the U.S. Marine Corps as well. In my mind it represents what multi-mission really means."
“Although often overlooked next to the Vietnam-era Huey in the pantheon of helicopter fame,” wrote Roger Connor, curator of the National Air and Space Museum’s vertical flight collection, in the museum’s blog recently, “this aircraft may well have been at the forefront of more American military operations in peace and war than any other.”
Maintenance personnel from Marine Corps Reserve
Medium Squadron 774 (HMM-774) watch the Boeing-Vertol CH-46E Sea Knight, Bureau Number
153369, that they have been taking care of since April, as it taxis for final takeoff
at Norfolk Naval Station on July 30, 2015.
On August 1, the helicopter will temporarily join the collection of the National Air
and Space Museum, ultimately becoming part of the National Museum of the Marine
Corps after its expansion is complete. (M.C.
Farrington/ Hampton Roads Naval Museum) |
The last of the Navy's CH-46 Sea Knights based at Naval Station Norfolk departed nearly 11 years ago and its Search-and-Rescue (SAR), Vertical Replenishment (VERTREP), and other logistical duties were taken up by the MH-60 Knighthawk, an aircraft with other variants serving the Navy since 1983 in other capacities such as Antisubmarine Warfare (ASW) and Antiship Surveillance and Targeting (ASST). The Marines of Reserve Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 774 (HMM-774) also based at the naval station, however, stubbornly maintained their Phrogs until the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, a truly revolutionary yet controversial replacement that has been in the development pipeline since before the demise of the Soviet Union, could take its place. Although its first flight was in 1989, the Osprey's maiden operational deployment with a Marine Corps squadron occurred in 2013.
A replacement data plate was recently made for the aircraft by its manufacturer. (M.C. Farrington/ Hampton Roads Naval Museum)
Thousands of Marines, Sailors, and untold tons of cargo transited through this CH-46 in its 48-years of operational life. (M.C. Farrington/ Hampton Roads Naval Museum)
Marine Corps Reserve Sgt. John Belanger keeps an eye to the rear of Phrog 153369 as the CH-46 taxis away from the HMM-774 hangar for the last time. (M.C. Farrington/Hampton Roads Naval Museum)
At noon on Saturday, August 1, Phrog 153369 will make its final touchdown as a part of an official retirement ceremony and “passing of the torch” to the MV-22 Osprey to be held at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.
“It’s an honor that we get to participate,” Said HMM-774's commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Dominic J. DeFazio just before boarding Phrog 153369 for his flight from Norfolk to Chantilly, where he will also be piloting the helicopter during its retirement ceremony. “But,” he added, “it’s still business.”
This particular CH-46 was selected because it was among those used by Marine First Lieutenant Joseph P. Donovan as he selflessly exposed himself to enemy fire to evacuate casualties during the Vietnam War. Both his mettle and that of the aircraft he flew were proven again and again in early 1969 and are attested to on his Silver Star and two Navy Cross citations for instances of heroism from February to May of that year.
After the helicopter's retirement ceremony on Saturday, a 14-person team from HMM-774 will, in the words of Master Gunnery Sergeant Willy Orosemane, HMM-774's maintenance chief, "demilitarize" the helicopter by emptying it of fluids, disabling the aircraft's fire suppression system, and removing any other materials or components considered hazardous. Phrog 153369 will then take its rightful place among other historical aircraft at the cavernous Udvar-Hazy Center such as the B-29 "Enola Gay," Space Shuttle Discovery, and the Bell XV-15, the experimental aircraft that led directly to the development of the CH-46's replacement, the MV-22 Osprey.
To Tom Stites, the retired naval aviator, the reasoning behind the Corps' adoption of the Osprey instead of settling for the SH-60 Seahawk or MH-60 Knighthawk years ago is easy to understand. "The United States Marine Corps wants to fly higher, faster. That's where the V-22 comes in." Stites added, however, that the Osprey was not designed to accomplish vertical replenishment, and so the Navy's decision to stick with a more conventional yet more proven rotary wing platform made sense.
Still, Stites opined that the Navy and now the Marine Corps was letting go of the most capable aircraft for vertical replenishment and combat resupply. The CH-46 design incorporating tandem contra-rotating propellers provided, in his words, "phenomenal lift," with near-100% efficiency, said the former squadron and wing commander, whereas a helicopter with a tail rotor has to expend 15 to 20% of its energy just to keep the fuselage from spinning out of control.
Reflecting upon losing the last of his Phrogs, Master Gunnery Sgt. Orosemane was circumspect. "It's bittersweet. But you have to be objective. These aircraft are about as old as I am." He called some of the new capabilities of the Osprey "out of this world." "When you see the new technology," said Orosemane, "you cannot not be impressed."