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Navy leaves aerial communications mission to Air Force

Chief Petty Officer Patrick McCool, Petty Officer 2nd Class Matt Woodard, Petty Officer 2nd Class Cicely Wiggins, and Petty Officer Chris Price, go over their final checks for the day in an E6 Mercury Jet, Apr. 1, 2009, at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia.  TF-124 team members provide communications to units on the ground that are out of range of normal radio contact.  Chief Petty Officer McCool hails from Oklahoma City, Okla.  Petty Officer Woodard hails from Elgin, Neb.  Petty Officer Wiggins hails from Woodbury Heights, N.J.  Petty Officer Price hails from Brighton, Ill.  All are deployed from Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. in support of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom and Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrew Satran/released)

(Clockwise, from lower left) Chief Petty Officer Patrick McCool, Petty Officer 2nd Class Matt Woodard, Petty Officer 2nd Class Cicely Wiggins and Petty Officer Chris Price, perform a final check for the day in an E-6B Mercury Apr. 1, 2009, at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. TF-124 team members provide communications to units on the ground that are out of range of normal radio contact. Chief Petty Officer McCool hails from Oklahoma City, Okla. Petty Officer Woodard hails from Elgin, Neb. Petty Officer Wiggins hails from Woodbury Heights, N.J. Petty Officer Price hails from Brighton, Ill. All are deployed from Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. in support of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom and Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Andrew Satran)

Lt. j.g. Steven Trybus, TF-124 E6 Mercury Jet Pilot, and Chief Petty Officer Robert Johnson, TF-124 E6 Mercury Jet Flight Engineer, perform their final routine checks on the E6 Mercury Jet Apr. 1, 2009, at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia.  Lt. j.g. Trybus hails from Orpstown, Pa.  Chief Petty Officer Johnson hails from Farmington, N.M.  Both are dployed from Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. in support of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom and Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrew Satran/released)

Lt. j.g. Steven Trybus, Task Force-124 Forward E-6B Mercury pilot, and Chief Petty Officer Robert Johnson, TF-124 flight engineer, perform a systems check on an E-6B Mercury Apr. 1, 2009, at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. Lieutenant Trybus hails from Orpstown, Pa. Chief Petty Officer Johnson hails from Farmington, N.M. Both are deployed from Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. in support of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom and Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Andrew Satran)

Petty Officer 2nd Class John Zamaripa, TF-124 Electrical Technician, Petty Officer 3rd Class Daniel Villalobos, TF-124 Aviation Structural Mechanic, and Petty Offcier 3rd Class Zach Burghy, Aviation Machinist, tie down and cover the E6 Mercury Jet engine after a mission, Apr. 1, 2009, at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia.  Petty Officer Zamaripa hails from Houston, Texas.  Petty Officer Villalobos hails from Omaha, Neb.  Petty Officer Burghy hails from Livingston, Wis.  All are deployed from Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. in support of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom and Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrew Satran/released)

Petty Officer 2nd Class John Zamaripa, Task Force-124 Forward electrical technician, Petty Officer 3rd Class Daniel Villalobos, TF-124 aviation structural mechanic, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Zach Burghy, aviation machinist, cover an E-6B Mercury jet engine Apr. 1, 2009, at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. Petty Officer Zamaripa hails from Houston. Petty Officer Villalobos hails from Omaha, Neb. Petty Officer Burghy hails from Livingston, Wis. All are deployed from Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Andrew Satran)

Petty Officer 3rd Class Zach Burghy, TF-124 aviation machinist, checks the oil level of one of the E-6B Mercury jet engine after a mission, April 1, 2009, at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. Petty Officer Burghy hails from Livingston, Wis. and is deployed from Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., in support of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom and Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Andrew Satran/Released)

Petty Officer 3rd Class Zach Burghy, TF-124 aviation machinist, checks the oil level of one of the E-6B Mercury jet engine after a mission, April 1, 2009, at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. Petty Officer Burghy hails from Livingston, Wis. and is deployed from Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., in support of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom and Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Andrew Satran)

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- For convoys moving at night in Iraq who are out of radio contact with all friendly forces, the E-6 Mercury has been a godsend. The Navy jet, which is assigned to Task Force-124 Forward here, is one of the aircraft flying over the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. They have been relaying urgent information like possible improvised explosive device detonations, attacks on the convoys and MEDEVAC requests to the appropriate agencies for more than two years.

However, at the end of April when TF-124 redeploys to Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., there will be no backfill. TF-124 Forward's mission will end leaving the entire mission to 777th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron's C-130 Hercules. The Joint Base Balad, Iraq, unit is the only other unit with aircraft equipped to complete this critical mission. 

"We shared this mission with the triple-seven out of Balad," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. John Johnson, TF-124 officer in charge. "When we initially started the mission, we had two or three areas of coverage, so it took two aircraft to do the mission. With some of the equipment improvements that have been made, we can get coverage over all the convoy routes from one location. So now there really isn't a need for us to stay any longer because the C-130s can do the mission by themselves." 

The system allowing the Mercury to communicate with friendly forces is a communications system called the joint airborne communications suite (JACS), which was installed specially for the mission in the area of responsibility. A combination of improvements to the JACS, ultra-high-frequency radio coverage on the ground and reduced sectarian violence is allowing the 777th EAS to take over the mission exclusively. 

"The workload we have had recently has decreased dramatically," said Navy Chief Petty Officer Patrick McCool, the battle staff mission commander. "When we first started this mission it was commonplace to receive calls reporting troops in contact, IED's, small arms fire, MEDEVACs, etc. We just don't get near as many of those calls anymore, it's a real testament to what a great job our troops on the ground are doing ." 

He said an example was in the past three months, they have only had to call for a MEDEVAC once, and that was because an individual injured himself while performing his duties, not because of any hostile action. 

"It gets kind of [repetitive] doing the same mission over and over when we are at home," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Chris Price, a reel operator from Brighton, Ill. "But within the first week of us getting here we had the MEDEVAC call, and it really felt like we were doing something important." 

Petty Officer 2nd Class Cicely Wiggins, a battle staff member, said deploying with the Mercury has been a rewarding experience. 

"It's been very fulfilling to be out here and be a part of everything," said the petty officer from Woodbury Heights, N.J. "All of the communications operators who've had the opportunity to come out here are very excited about it because it's an opportunity we rarely get." 

Since TF-124 Forward was activated in October, 2006, it has flown six days a week, every week for more than 690 sorties and 8,000 hours in the air. During that time, the commander, who hails from Lawton, Okla., said the E-6B crew has called in 26 MEDEVACs and relayed information on 170 IED detonations and 165 possible IEDs. It has also relayed 320 pieces of information to the 7th Expeditionary Airborne Command and Control Squadron's E-8 Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar Systems. 

The E-6B was originally supposed to come here for less than a year then return to the U.S. Strategic Command, flying its mission of nuclear command and control. Due to the needs of ground forces, the aircraft ended up staying until now. 

"We came from a strategic mission, which is very important, but you don't get a lot of feedback," said Commander Johnson. "Here, we are doing a tactical mission, which gives you immediate feedback and you can see that you're making a difference. For these guys (aircrew), that's something they don't get to do very often." 

Because the E-6B is flying non-standard missions, the enlisted crewmen have also been taken out of their standard jobs on the jet to operate the radios. 

"We have people from a pretty diverse group of career fields, however, they are excellent communicators and are able to pick the mission up here quickly. The majority of our Sailors are accustomed to talking on radios and so they make a perfect fit for this mission," said Chief Petty Officer McCool. "The biggest learning curve is learning where all of the routes are that the convoys travel on, so that we are able to give concise and immediate feedback to the convoys."

Commander Johnson said he thought that it had been a rewarding experience for all the Sailors who have deployed with the E-6B, because of how much of a difference they have made in the current conflict. 

"The troops on the convoys love the fact that we are up there. They have someone that has a gods-eye view of their situation and they have connectivity no matter where they go," Commander Johnson added. "They take a lot of comfort in the fact that we provide a blanket of coverage for them."