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, late this year, the SAR units at Marine Corps Air Station sCherry Point, North Carolina, and Yuma, Arizona, will be disbanded sundowned. 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. The decision to shutter Marine Transport Squadron 1 at Cherry Point and the SAR unit at Yuma is 20 years in the making, officials said. In 1994, fiscal constraints caused manpower and operational cuts osts across the military. Four similar units were shut down then. and the budget crunch caused the corps to eliminate four of the six SAR units at air stations. Now, Yuma and Cherry point will follow.
"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 and MCAS arine Corps Air Station 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 duty of recovering pilots who eject during flights, combing oceans for distressed sailors, picking up wayward canoeist and other life-or-death missions will be reassigned to the Coast Guard at Cherry Point and contractors at Yuma.
The unit at Yuma flies four HH-1N Iroquois helicopters, while VMR-1 at Cherry Point flies the three HH-46E Pedro helicopters Sea Knights. Both units fall under the installation commander.
The SAR units exist primarily to help out distressed Marines, but they also assist help out with civilian emergency response missions and have become assets to the communities near their bases, making the aviators a favorite of local officials.
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.
"We're kind of the only asset in the area that's able to do these rescues and technical revolutions at night," he said in an interview in October.
In December, Commissioners in Craven County, North Carolina, home to MCAS Cherry Point, passed roposed a resolution stating their opposition to the decision to cut VMR-1 because the Corps hadn't explained or justified it's 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.