An eager crowd poured out of side doors of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, straining to catch a glimpse of history as one of the last USMC CH-46 Sea Knights touched down for the final time. Hundreds of iPhones were raised in the air as the onlookers offered their own salute to the venerable ‘Phrog’ in its throwback Vietnam-era green paint scheme and its escort, a matching “greenside” MV-22B Osprey from HMX-1.
As the rotors wound down and slowed to a stop, a cheer erupted from the crowd who gathered outside despite the mid-day summer heat to say farewell to a friend. It was a bittersweet moment for many who had come to celebrate the much-respected helicopter, the mainstay of the Marine Corps medium lift fleet for the last half-century. The logbooks for aircraft bureau number 153369 were handed over to the Smithsonian, and the Marine Corps band struck up the service’s hymn and the Star-Spangled Banner.
The green “Phrog,” as the CH-46 has come to be known, has been passed around to several different units in the past year, but the last honor goes to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 774 (HMM-774), the Wild Goose from Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia. The reserve squadron is the last USMC unit to operate the CH-46E, and will soon transition to the MV-22B Osprey. The HMM designation will then also be relegated to the history books as they will become Marine Medium Tiltrotor squadron, or VMM-774.
First flown in August 1962, the Boeing/Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight has had a long an illustrious career with the USMC, serving with distinction since its initial combat foray in Vietnam. Wherever the Marines went, so did the Phrog. The type’s reliability and unique twin rotor design endeared it to many, and there will be a special place for 153369 at the National Museum of the Marine Corps at Quantico once the final phase of expansion is completed.
Though the August 1st ceremony brought the story of the Sea Knight’s USMC service closer to its inevitable end, the Phrog lives on at MCAS Cherry Point near Havelock, North Carolina. The Roadrunners of Marine Transport Squadron 1 (VMR-1) still sport a trio of HH-46E Sea Knights, using the historic “PEDRO” search-and-rescue callsign. Primarily used as a local Cherry Point SAR asset, the HH-46E’s gray and day-glo orange paint scheme is instantly recognizable and has been a welcome sight all over the North Carolina coast.
However, even they are on borrowed time as the 2015 Marine Aviation Plan calls for the HH-46Es to be retired by the end of 2015, with the ultimate goal of divesting the Marine Corps of its own SAR mission. Local leaders have opposed this drastic move, given the value of Pedro’s services to both the base and the community at large.
Even with the Sea Knight bowing out from front-line service, the Phrog still has more life for now, and will continue to prove itself an incredibly capable machine until the very end.