The USMC said goodbye to a longtime friend last week, as September 25th marked the final flight of VMR-1’s HH-46E Sea Knights. For years they’ve been known affectionately as Pedro, an historical callsign just as old as the Boeing/Vertol CH-46 design that dates back to early search-and-rescue (SAR) operations in 1965.
It was a dreary, low overcast day for Pedro’s last ride, but that was perfectly suited for the Roadrunners of VMR-1. After all, most of their rescue missions were conducted in poor weather. As the rotors wound to a stop at the end of the flight, an end of an era in USMC history was drawn to a close. The last of the “Phrogs” retired.
Despite the combat-coded CH-46s having already been officially retired from the Marine Corps at the beginning of August, the HH-46Es at VMR-1 quietly soldiered on at MCAS Cherry Point until their last flight on September 25. Now the base is left without a local SAR unit, relying instead on the US Coast Guard in Elizabeth City to pick up the slack for water rescues.
That’s reason enough for the Marine Prowler and Harrier aviators at Cherry Point to raise an eyebrow, who have now lost their dedicated rescue birds.The local community for years also reaped the benefits of VMR-1’s SAR expertise. Even though their primary mission was always to support Cherry Point’s operations, the squadron’s HH-46Es stayed busy with range support, local civilian MEDEVACs, and the occasional hurricane rescue. They averaged about 1 rescue a week, and even recently they got called twice on one of their last days of operation.
Sometimes though, the ops tempo is insanely high: the last time Pedro was involved in hurricane ops, they tallied 350 saves in a single day. Yes, you read that correctly. One day. Their SAR services could have been sorely needed this week, but fortunately the Carolina coast was spared as Hurricane Joaquin has been tracking further out in the Atlantic.
The HH-46Es were no doubt getting old – the youngest delivered in 1970 – and thus becoming more costly to maintain, so the USMC decided to pull the plug on Pedro operations. The problem is that the demand for SAR services is not going away anytime soon. Cherry Point and the surrounding east coast bases have enjoyed a stellar safety record in recent years, but given the amount of training conducted off-shore in the Warning Areas in all likelihood at some point there will be an over-water ejection. In the past, Pedro crews would have been standing by to pick up a pilot in the drink – at one point they had a 24 hour, round-the-clock SAR crew on alert – but no more.
Depending on where an ejection occurs, USCG crews may take a couple hours to reach a downed pilot. That’s far outside the “golden hour” standard that emergency services utilize for establishing trauma response care. Now if a pilot goes down in the freezing Atlantic during the winter, their situation could be a little more perilous now that a Pedro crew is not rapidly smashing its way after them.
As of October 1, the USMC no longer has any H-46 variants in its inventory, having given the HH-46Es over to the Navy’s Fleet Readiness Center East at Cherry Point. Though VMR-1 still keeps their UC-35B and C-9B transports on strength, the USMC and the Havelock community will lose the talent of many of the highly experienced SAR personnel.
The HH-46E’s distinctive color scheme, the bright day-glo orange and contrasting dark gray, will be a sight sorely missed in the local community and the shutdown of local SAR operations has left some big shoes for other agencies to fill.
So long to the Phrogs, so long Pedro!
(with special thanks to VMR-1)
(Featured photo by Jonathan Derden)