In 2005, Sullivan saw the difference when he was a captain and forward air controller with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines in Ramadi, Iraq. Sullivan is an F/A-18 pilot and instructor of forward air controllers at the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One in Yuma, Arizona. He had served in Iraq before his 2005 deployment: during the 2003 invasion, as an airborne controller in the F/A-18C, one of the most versatile multi-mission fighters in the U.S. inventory. “It’s difficult to become well-versed in the airplane because you can do everything in it except land vertically,” he says. The Hornet has a 20-mm cannon installed directly in front of its windscreen; it has nine attach points for air-to-air missiles or bombs.
During the invasion of Iraq, Sullivan was assigned to fly SCAR missions—strike coordination and armed reconnaissance. “We were stationed on the ground in Kuwait,” he says. “And we were tied at the hip to [Marine ground units there]. We we were very dialed in to what the ground commanders in Kevlars wanted us to do.”
On one SCAR mission, Sullivan and his wingman checked in with a light armored recon unit driving toward Baghdad, and found out from the ground forward air controller that the unit was in trouble. “So this was one of our bros,” he says of the FAC. “This was one of the Marines we went through flight school with.” The enemy had set off mines on the road to halt all the vehicles, then targeted the Marines with artillery fire. With guidance from the FAC, Sullivan could see the artillery pieces, just over a mile from the road. Notifying an airborne FAC, he rolled in and dropped two 2,000-pound bombs. His wingman dropped two more. The artillery fire stopped. The two pilots then strafed a trench line to save the recon unit from machine guns.
Back in Iraq in 2005, the tables were turned: Sullivan was the ground FAC, contacting the Direct Air Support Center to request air strikes. One day, when a government center was under attack, Sullivan was given a joint-service package, with Air Force F-16s or A-10s along with Navy aircraft, “and it was a disaster,” he says. “They didn’t know what was going on with the ground scheme of maneuver and that is because they weren’t in direct contact with us every day.” The Marine air support groups were. When the center was attacked again two days later and the DASC asked what aircraft should be directed to Ramadi, Sullivan told his sergeant to type into the instant-message chat they were using, “Any aircraft with ‘Marines’ painted on the side.”
“I got into a little bit of trouble for that,” Sullivan says. He later learned that all the Marine air support groups had printed out the message, enlarged it, and taped it to the walls in their ready rooms.
Sikorsky UH-34D: Underdog
Retired Marine Art “Mad Mex” Sifuentes will be the first to tell you that the CH-46 tandem-rotor turbine is a more capable helicopter than the smaller piston-powered UH-34D it replaced. But the UH-34, he says, “is just near and dear to my heart. I always thought it caught kind of a short shrift because when the H-46s came over the first time, they had some real problems from time to time. Well, when those are grounded, what’s left? The old -34. So we were flying our tails off until they found out what was wrong with the Sea Knight.”
The Marines called the -34D “the Dog,” because of its “D” designation and its lowly, do-any-job utility (and maybe because its official name, “Seahorse,” would just seem wrong coming out of a Marine’s mouth). It flew every mission there was to fly. Recalls Sifuentes: “One day you’d fly day medevacs, the next day you’d fly area reconnaissance, then resupply—pick up water, ammo, food, take it out to the troops and bring back personnel, or VIP chase.”
The -34 was the last of the piston-engine helicopters, and it had a complicated power train. A nine-cylinder Wright 1820 radial in the nose was connected to the rotor by a drive shaft that passed through the cockpit and took a 90-degree turn to reach the rotor gearbox. The Dog wasn’t fast. It traveled at about 100 mph. So chasing the 125-mph UH-1 Huey, the air taxi of the VIPs, wasn’t easy. Sifuentes says Dog pilots often had to ask the lead pilot to slow down. “Look, I’m 90 knots back here,” he recalls saying over and over, “and I’ve got the collective up to my armpit. I’ve got as much power as I can pull. Would you please slow down?”
Like the larger helicopter that replaced it, the Dog dropped off Marine recon teams into dangerous territory. Says Sifuentes: “And they’d get in trouble, and they’d call us up and say, ‘We need an extract. We need an extract.’ And you’d get up there and start talking to them on the radio to find out where they are. And when they were whispering to you, you knew they were in trouble. The enemy was close enough to hear them.”
Sifuentes felt relatively safe in the Dog. “Even when you were taking fire going into and out of a zone, you had that big old engine in front of you,” he says. “And the little bugger always got me home.”