Isle Army Guard to be eyes in sky in Afghanistan

Posted on Oct 9, 2013 in In The News

By William Cole

Some Hawaii Army National Guard soldiers will soon be flying missions in unarmed civilian turboprop aircraft over battle zones in Afghanistan.

The Detachment 55 soldiers will be using Super King Air 300s loaded with high-resolution sensors and cameras to support troops on the ground.

They’ll be able to see — but will be flying high above — the action on the ground for safety, and have helicopters and fighter jets to call on.

“I think we’ve been trained well enough where we mitigated a lot of (the) risks, and there is support around us,” said Capt. Jeffrey Chang, a deploying pilot. “We’re not flying solo, so we have the support if we need it.”

A deployment ceremony was held Tuesday in a hangar at Wheeler Army Airfield for the 13 Hawaii Guard soldiers who will be leaving Friday for Fort Hood, Texas, and then nine months of duty in Afghanistan as part of Task Force ODIN (observe, detect, identify and neutralize).

Although the Air Force is thought of as operating most of the fixed-wing aircraft, the Army continues to develop its own turboprops to gather battlefield intelligence, a trend expected to continue as the U.S. shifts greater focus to the Pacific.

Detachment 55 previously deployed to Djibouti, Africa, for Operation Enduring Freedom in 2008, and to Bogota, Colombia, in support of Special Operations Command in 2012.

The Guard soldiers are leaving for Bagram Air Base, meanwhile, on what has become a dwindling number of missions to the country for Hawaii-based troops. The United States is drawing down forces and consolidating bases as it looks ahead to a withdrawal of combat forces at the end of 2014.

The aircraft are one of the first lines of protection for ground troops because the crew, which includes “aerial sensor operators,” can find improvised explosive devices and insurgent threats, provide route clearance and even help guide troops through a village.

Chief Warrant Officer 5 Charles Gustafson, the detachment commander, said the Medium Altitude Reconnaissance Surveillance System airplanes can bring to bear the crew members’ and sensors’ eyes “right on the ground and (see) what’s going on with that situation.”

“We can make a decision at that time to either shift or deploy different assets into there or call for other assets,” Gustafson said.

Detachment 55 operates a larger twin-engine turboprop C-26 in Hawaii that has seating for 19 passengers or cargo. The airplane served as the backdrop for Tuesday’s deployment ceremony.

“This is a very hostile environment that they will fly in, and I’m not saying that to scare anyone; it’s just the reality of Afghanistan, not only because of Taliban insurgents, but due to the topography of the high altitudes they’ll be flying at,” said Maj. Gen. Darryll D.M. Wong, the state adjutant general.

Wong also told the deploying soldiers, “Your mission, even though it’s small in numbers and the aircraft is not a big aircraft, will save lives.”

Air Force Capt. Reid K. Nishizuka, 30, of Kailua was the pilot of an MC-12W turboprop aircraft that crashed April 27 near Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan while conducting a similar intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission. Nishizuka was killed.

Detachment 55 is providing about one-quarter of the personnel that will make up Bravo Company for Task Force ODIN.

Sgt. Lady Vanessa Baclaan, 25, valedictorian of the Nanakuli High School Class of 2008, is heading out on the deployment as a supply sergeant but is working to become an aerial sensor operator.

She deployed to Afghanistan before with the Guard.

“It’s not as bad as some people think,” she said. “I kind of know what to expect.”

McKenna Panui-Scobie was there for her husband, Sgt. Drew Scobie, along with their son, Duke, 4, and Sgt. Scobie’s brother and sister, his mother and his grandparents.

This is the first deployment the couple is going through, and Panui-Scobie said “it really hasn’t hit us yet.”

“I’m OK right now,” she said. “I’m a little afraid, but I don’t really know a whole lot what to expect. I’m trying to keep myself busy.”