Friday, March 31, 2017

Hope on a Rope

The Colonel can't get into this time of year without remembering where he was during one of the best times of his life.

In the early Spring of 1988, the Colonel, then a captain of Marines, was in command of a 200-man reinforced infantry company designated the dedicated "heli-borne" force of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit -- Special Operations Capable (26th MEU-SOC).  That unit, trained to execute sea-based raids, was embarked on LPH-2, USS Iwo Jima.

The Iwo was a storied ship, named for the most storied battle in the Corps' history.  She was an accomplished ship, as well, having participated in combat operations during Vietnam, as well as wide-ranging forward deployments throughout the Western Pacific. Perhaps her most famous mission was recovery of the Apollo 13 crew at the splashdown completion of their jinxed mission.

By the time the Colonel and his company went aboard her, the Iwo was also getting a bit long in the tooth.  She had been the first of her kind -- an amphibious assault ship built from the keel up to carry and launch aircraft in support of the Marine Corps' vertical assault modus operandi.  Launched in 1960, the Iwo Jima was showing its age; but, was manned by a great crew and fully capable of getting it's embarked Marines to the fight. 

Those were heady days for the Colonel.  He was at the head of 200 of the most hard-charging young men you could imagine.  The Colonel spent a lot of energy telling them just how great they were and just how important their mission was as forward deployed representatives of the greatest Republic on earth, but they were largely self-motivated, and, if truth be told, actually motivated the Colonel far more than he motivated them.

As the "heli-borne force" for the 26th MEU-SOC, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines was trained and ready to receive a mission, plan its conduct, and launch in a mix of CH-46E and CH-53E helicopters within 6 hours.  Raid missions for which they were prepared ranged from airfield seizure to in extremis hostage rescue.

One mission in particular sparks synapses in the Colonel's brain-housing group more and more these days -- Long-Range Ship Reinforcement.  

On station in the Mediterranean Sea area of operations, wherein the Colonel and his merry band of brothers were deployed, the United States maintained a small fleet of civilian-crewed, un-armed, RORO (roll-on, roll-off) ships crammed to the gunnels with vehicles, gear, and supplies to outfit and support a large Marine force that would fly into a friendly or captured airfield (thus the "airfield seizure" mission referenced above) and marry-up with that equipment.  The powers that be were, rightly, concerned that those unarmed ships were plum targets for enemies of US interests.  So, in the event of a credible threat to those ships, a small force of Marines (armed to the teeth) would fly in air-refuelable CH-53E Super Stallions for several hours, over empty ocean, and reinforce the threatened ship.  
There was teeny tiny problem, however.  Those ships didn't have any place for that great big helicopter to land.

So, the Marines, ever-adaptable, came up with a solution to getting a helicopter-load of Marines, and their weapons and gear, out of the helicopter when there was no way to land.

They called it "fast rope."  

"Fast-roping" is not rappelling -- where the one "on rappel" is attached by a snap-link or carabiner to a slender line.  Instead, fast-roping can be likened to sliding down a pole in a fire station.  Except the pole is a thick rope attached to a hovering helicopter; and, the helicopter, while hovering, ain't exactly stationary.  Neither is the deck onto which the fast-ropee is fast-roping

Oh, and because ships have all kinds of stuff sticking up on them well above the deck, the helicopter dumping its load of Marines via fast rope has to hover several stories (sometimes 60 feet or more) above the ship.  

The ship continues to sail.

The helicopter continues to hover/fly in concert with the ship.

The ship rocks, pitches, and rolls like a..., well..., like a drunken sailor still on sea legs.

The fast-roping few, with gear and weapons slung on shoulders and backs, grasp the thick rope in gloved hands, clench their boots on the rope, and slide down.

Fast.

The life-expectancy of gloves and boots in a fast-roping outfit is quite short.

Sometimes shorter than a single slide.




In the picture above, a Marine is fast-roping out of the "hell hole" of a CH-53E helicopter.  

Shuffle up to the gaping square opening in the floor of a helo hovering over a moving, rolling, pitching ship onto which you will now slide down a rope, with 80 pounds of gear on your back, and you will understand the appellation, "hell hole."

In fact, you will probably have several other four letter names on your lips.  The Colonel will leave that to your imagination.

Helicopter pilots, while justifiably proud of their ability to hover over, and maintain station with, a moving, rolling, pitching ship, are not overly fond of doing it for extended periods of time.

Thus the "fast" in fast-rope.

At, say, 60 feet, and with a frantic helo crew-chief yelling, "go!, go!, go!," because a frantic pilot is screaming into his headset, "get 'em out!, get 'em out!, get 'em out!," the fast-roping Marines are literally leaping into thin air with often the most tenuous grasps on the rope.  

And, there's a Marine right below them, still on the rope.

Now, imagine the scene at the bottom of the rope.  

There will be heapage, and great, curse-filled, scrambling.

Oh..., and the rotor wash of a CH-53E Super Stallion hovering at 60 feet approaches the wind speed of a Category 4 hurricane... 


Man, the Colonel misses those days!       

   
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