Budget cuts are pushing Marine aviators out of the search and rescue business.
After 56 years of picking up downed aviators and assisting people in emergencies, the Marine Corps is cutting two search and rescue aviation units. By the end of October, the SAR unit at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, will be disbanded. Marine Transport Squadron 1, based at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina, will follow suit by the end of 2015.
The two Marine SAR units are the last of their kind. In 1994, fiscal constraints caused manpower and operational cuts across the military. Four similar units were shut down then.
“Today’s landscape of fiscal austerity further compelled the Marine Corps to return its SAR mission to the [U.S. Coast Guard] in this region,” said Michael Barton, spokesman for the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing and Cherry Point.
At Yuma, the SAR mission will be reassigned to local contractors rather than the Coast Guard, according to a recently published Marine aviation plan.
The unit at Yuma flies four HH-1N Iroquois helicopters, while VMR-1 at Cherry Point flies the three HH-46E Pedro helicopters. Both units fall under the installation commander.
The SAR units exist primarily to help out distressed Marines, but they also assist with civilian emergency response missions and have become assets to the communities near their bases.
In October, the SAR unit at Yuma made headlines when they helped rescue a group of 28 Boy Scouts and four chaperons who got lost in a thick maze of water vegetation during a canoe trip. Working with government civilian aviation units and with nightfall approaching, the Marines quickly located the wayward scouts in a thick tangle of high reeds before helping guide them back home.
Capt. Wes Urquhart, a pilot in the Yuma unit, said his crew was the only one in the area that can do that sort of mission.
In December, Commissioners in Craven County, North Carolina, home to MCAS Cherry Point, passed a resolution stating their opposition to the decision to cut VMR-1 because the Corps hadn’t explained or justified its reasoning, and the county isn’t assured that the Coast Guard could provide a similar service.
The resolution calls on the governor, congressmen and the state’s military affairs commission “to take an active role in supporting Pedro and the SAR mission at MCAS Cherry Point.”
According to the resolution, the squadron performs about 50 life-saving missions annually, helping aviators, boaters, lost children and medevac flights for civilians. It was particularly valuable in 1999 after Hurricane Floyd when the unit rescued 399 people from flooding and helped provide humanitarian assistance to the eastern part of the state.
“VMR-1’s SAR mission is a valued and critically important part of MCAS Cherry Point’s service to its Marines and civilian neighbors,” the resolution states.
Written by Josh Stewart (Staff Writer )
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