Phoenix rises in college town

14 Sep 2006 |

Student activity around campus at the University of Illinois-Champaign came to an abrupt halt Sept. 14, when two CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters flew over town low and slow on a cross-country training flight.

The heavy-lift helicopters, flown by members of Marine Helicopter Training Squadron 302, Marine Corps Air Station, New River, NC, were a rare sight in the Central Illinois town. In order to create awareness of opportunities in Marine Corps aviation programs, Officer Selection Office and Recruiting Substation Champaign coordinated with the training squadron to organize a busy weekend schedule, including a static display, pool function and a flyover of a University of Illinois football game.

After the local Marines learned of the visit, the exercise was turned into an experience for the entire community. Representatives from the OSO and RSS coordinated with the training squadron to invite the public to a static display at the university’s Willard Airport. Navy ROTC midshipmen, enlisted poolees, Marines, and former servicemembers represented the past, present and future of Marine Corps aviation programs.

The two CH-53E Super Stallions also participated in a flyover of the Illinois vs. Syracuse football game. During several laps around downtown Champaign at 500 feet, the quiet college town shook as the heavy-lift helicopters flew over Memorial Stadium to highlight the game’s national anthem.

“It was a lot of extra work, but our Marines seemed happy to help out,” McDermott said.
Gunnery Sgt. Tabitha Harry, SNCOIC, RSS Champaign, said she was surprised at the amount of interest the helicopters generated.

“(HMT-302) had everything set up very nicely for the community,” she said.

Harry said the weekend visit from the aviation Marines brought a change to the quiet life in the Midwest town, bringing back memories of serving in “the Fleet.”

“On recruiting duty, you miss being on base,” said Harry. “Working with (HMT-302) recharged and motivated all of our recruiters.”

Many of the events were coordinated by Maj Brian P. McDermott, instructor pilot, HMT-302. McDermott said he is a two-time alumnus of the University of Illinois, having graduated in 1993 to earn a pilot’s and airframe/power plant mechanic’s license and in 1996 to earn a history degree.

“It feels good to be back in Champaign,” he said. “I used to do a lot of flying here, so it’s nice to see my former training areas.”

According to McDermott, the five-day event was initially planned as a training flight to and from the Champaign.

“This is a good training environment for a cross-country flight,” said McDermott.

To the crews of the heavy lift helicopters, Champaign may look like an island-city in an ocean of soybean and corn fields from the air. The wide-open spaces of former prairie land are generally flat, interrupted only by a few country roads and farmhouses, presenting fewer obstacles for the approximately 100-foot long aircraft.

“It’s nice to have a change from our normal training routine,” said Lance Cpl. Jon L. Bush, crew chief under instruction, HMT-302.

Bush, who graduated from the crew chief training Sept. 28, said he didn’t mind the six-hour flight from New River, N.C., if it meant he could earn his aircrew wings.

“I couldn’t imagine doing another job,” Bush said.

Following the flyover, many of the training squadron’s Marines received free tickets to watch the football game, courtesy of the Navy ROTC. Despite his alma mater’s 31-21 loss, McDermott said the crew deserved the day off.

“It’s our way of saying thanks for their hard work,” said McDermott.

9th Marine Corps District