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One Community, Many Paths
by U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Dakota Rayburn -  February 10, 2016

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Pacific winds whip across the nonskid of the flight deck on USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) as she cuts through glassy water reflecting a bright blue sky.

Pilots with steady hands on the controls of haze grey Sea Hawks, beat the JP-5 heavy air down and away in time with flight crew Sailors directing each takeoff and landing. The Chargers of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 14 and the Raptors of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 71 are currently deployed with Stennis. These squadrons' pilots rely on extensive training, muscle memory and on-the-job experience to navigate the dangers associated with their line of work.

Jan. 20, 2016 - Three MH-60R Sea Hawks assigned to the Raptors of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 71 prepare to land on USS John C. Stennis' (CVN 74) flight deck. Providing a combat-ready force to protect and defend collective maritime interests, Stennis as part of the great green fleet is operating in the U.S. 3rd Fleet area of operations on a regularly scheduled Western Pacific deployment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kenneth Rodriguez Santiago)
Jan. 20, 2016 - Three MH-60R Sea Hawks assigned to the Raptors of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 71 prepare to land on USS John C. Stennis' (CVN 74) flight deck. Providing a combat-ready force to protect and defend collective maritime interests, Stennis as part of the great green fleet is operating in the U.S. 3rd Fleet area of operations on a regularly scheduled Western Pacific deployment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kenneth Rodriguez Santiago)

Lt. Jason "OMG" Gaidis of HSC-14 from Brownsville, Indiana, said big mistakes can result in the loss of life, limb and equipment; which is why aviation officers must not only have the necessary skills, but also confidence in their own abilities, to overcome any challenge.

People with distinct personalities seem to be attracted to, or develop within this kind of job.

Lt. Pete "Therapist'" Listron of HSC-14, a helo pilot for four years from La Grange, Georgia, and known within HSC-14 for his energetic character, is a good example of that. He uses his emphatic personal motto, “Tight, tight, mega tight!” often but most especially to describe the huge rush he experiences when flying. He said his favorite thing about piloting helos is when he gets to fly backwards. Flying though, requires all of a pilot's attention while using his or her whole body to operate the helo safely and smoothly.

“There's a lot more to being a pilot than just going up and flying,” said Lt. Ashley "Mr. Ping" Hallford of HSM-71, a Sea Hawk pilot for four years, from Southlake, Texas. “There's a lot of time commitment involved, specifically with mission planning.”

Other than the many various contingencies involved in planning a mission, the physics of flying a helo present a more fundamental challenge. Gaidis explained the complexity of rotary-winged flight as being like a balancing act that seems nearly impossible at first glance. However due to extensive training, that skill becomes second nature, similar to riding a bike or driving a car.

“Imagine balancing three gyros on top of each other,” said Gaidis. “For a helo pilot, you imagine the result you want and your hands do it.”

Lt. j.g. Alex Wells of HSC-14, from Vestal, New York, explained that officers who make it through flight school and then graduate from either fixed-wing or rotary-wing training are nowhere near being finished with their education. Pilots are constantly learning and evolving to keep up with changing technologies so they can perform at the top of their game.

“It's an unbelievably large amount of work to be a pilot, but it's also a crazy amount of fun,” said Gaidis.

Each pilot has to overcome many difficult obstacles to reach their goal. They must graduate from several different education courses and maintain a high standard of physical fitness while spending countless hours studying and training to eventually be able to fly.

Some are following a dream, living for a thrill, wanting to improve their lives or modeling their life after someone they admire.

“[I wanted to be a helo pilot] when I was a kid; that's kind of what pushed me toward it,” said Wells.

Few people are lucky enough to reach a childhood goal the way Wells has. Perhaps that's why some prefer to experience an individual moment up in the air to its fullest. They devote all of their attention to the helo and its surroundings, not just as a job they are tasked with but as a fluid moment.

“Flying is dynamic,” said Listron. “You're in it to win it.”

Some Sailors view getting commissioned as a pilot to be the next step in their career. Gaidis used to be an aviation structural mechanic second class, earning has aviation warfare and naval aircrew pins before commissioning in 2010. He was a crew member aboard C-2A Greyhound cargo aircraft when he realized he wanted to be an officer. He applied to the Seaman to Adm. Officer Program several times before being accepted.

“I knew I wanted it and ‘no' means try harder,” said Gaidis. “Once the opportunity came I worked hard for three years and made it happen.”

Other pilots pursue a family legacy with the same fervor Gaidis had in his career. Hallford's father was a fighter pilot in the 1980s, flying F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets; and her grandfather was an Air Force pilot before that. Legacy isn't her only motivator though, she's just as heavily influenced by her own ambitions, if not more so.

“When I'm doing anti-submarine warfare [training] and I'm tracking a sub we can't see but can tell where it is, it's a cool feeling,” said Hallford. “You get a lot of experiences here you're not going to come across in the civilian world, so I take advantage of that while I can.”

According to Hallford, Sea Hawk pilots' personalities usually don't reflect any of the dangers involved in their strenuous jobs.They prefer to behave and react a little more fluidly and have laid-back personalities.

“I think we're pretty down to earth,” said Hallford. “We're definitely like a family.”

Despite the wide variety of reasons people fly helicopters, pilots have formed a tight-knit group. Listron likes the community saying they have bonded over the years they've worked together and have created a culture all their own akin to a brotherhood. Like any close community, helo pilots have developed camaraderie with one another.

More photos available below

By U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Dakota Rayburn
Provided through DVIDS
Copyright 2016

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