A Tiltrotor Squadron in Afghanistan
Scenes of a Marine unit flying the incredible, versatile Osprey.
Writer and photographer Ed Darack writes in our April/May 2010 issue of the time he spent in southern Afghanistan in December 2009 with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261 (VMM-261).
Many of the Osprey pilots used to fly the Boeing CH-46 Sea Knight, known colloquially to the Marines as the “Phrog.” “I felt safe in the Phrog because it had two .50-caliber machine guns,” says Captain Chris Meixell of VMM-261. "The greatest safety advantage [of the Osprey] is the performance of the aircraft itself, which allows us to climb quickly out of small-arms and shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile range.”
About this shot Darack says, “The pilots put the tip lights on for safety during nighttime and at dawn and dusk. They just started this one up—you can see the plume of white smoke.”
This was “one of the few times that I was able to photograph an air-to-air sequence,” says Darack. “This is in the desert over southern Afghanistan, while flying from Kandahar Province into Helmand Province.”
Do the members of VMM-261 long for a “sexier” aircraft? “We’re an assault support platform,” said Major Will Grant. “We don’t need aggressive nose-high altitudes, we don’t need aggressive turns, we don’t need to do aerobatics.”
At Camp Bastion, each squadron has a large hangar for maintenance, notes Darack. “None of the aviators live at the squadron headquarters itself. They live at Camp Leatherneck, which is a sprawling tent city. Each morning members of the ‘day shift’ of the squadron catch a bus, usually about 4:00 in the morning, from Camp Leatherneck, and take the 20-minute ride to headquarters. The ride is 20 minutes not because it’s that far from Leatherneck, but because they have to drive around the airstrip. There’s a small chow tent at the squadron, where they serve ‘tray rats,’ or tray rations.”
The aircraft maintainers work 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. Here, three Marines change a swashplate actuator, which is the “muscle” the flight control system uses to change blade pitch on the rotor.
An Osprey idles at a combat outpost in southern Afghanistan. “Although distorted due to the extreme wide angle view from the lens,” says Darack, “you can really get an idea of just how tight of a space in which an Osprey can land. Notice the river rock on which it sits.”
“The dust gets everywhere,” says Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Bianca, commanding officer of VMM-261. “And this dust is different than the sand we saw in Iraq or while training back in the States. The Marines call it ‘moon dust,’ and it is as fine as talcum powder.”
Night view of an Osprey on the flightline. “This was before the pilots and crew spun up the aircraft,” says Darack. “They were preparing for a night operation.”
Says Staff Sergeant Roman Yurek, “The Ospreys aren’t the Hollywood stars of the Marine Air Group, just an active cast member supporting everything the Marine Expeditionary Brigade is doing out here.”
This is “one of my favorite shots from the embed,” says Darack. “It was hard to find just the right ‘view’ showing a spinning Osprey separated from background clutter. Lucky for me, this one was spinning up, as was one just down the line—a line of nothing but Ospreys. The expeditionary hangar can be seen in the background. This was a tough shot, as I had to keep the shutter open for about two minutes, but during this time, they ran up the engines, which blew and vibrated the camera and tripod (which I had to lean down on to keep from blowing over). There was just enough moonlight out to balance the rest of the scene and not wash out the stars.”
Osprey at Sunset
“We’re the Marines,” says Bianca. “We’re not the Air Force or NASA, and the technology is only a means to an end. We have a saying here at VMM-261: It’s the Marine, not the machine, that accomplishes the mission.”
Inside the Hangar
High dynamic range imaging, or HDR, is a photographic technique that allows a greater range between the light and dark areas of a photograph. "HDR photography is a fantastic form of imaging, but only certain scenes lend themselves to this technique," says Darack. "When I first toured VMM-261's grounds, I saw this Osprey undergoing phase maintenance. I decided that the lighting inside the hangar, combined with the exterior, natural light creeping in, was just such a scene. I made a number of exposures, then combined them in a program called Photomatix. This image is the result."