Combat Camera — Overhead Imagery

As part of their airborne mission, the 55th Signal Combat Camera Company has started training with aviation units.  The Combat Camera Company operates and maintains combat camera imagery systems in support of strategic, operational and tactical theater objectives of military operations.  Lieutenant Colonel Kjäll Gopaul, Deputy Director of the Joint and Air Staff Liaison Office, highlights a recent airborne training event and its Total Force integration. 

It was hot – brutally so — and the Marshalling Area Control Officer (MACO) for the paradrop exercise was starting his pre-jump mantra. 

“I am Sergeant First Class Rodrick Jackson, and I will now provide your MACO brief….” 

The blistering 102° heat was oppressive and made it hard to focus on anything for very long.

“Drop altitude will be 1500 feet AGL….six  drops per pass…”

The combined weight of the combat gear with the main and reserve parachutes made it increasingly difficult to stand.

“Direction of flight is northwest … first jumper — we want you to make it to the ‘X’ on the drop zone…”

Drinking water helped, but it required extra effort to concentrate on everything being said. 

“Any questions?…Line up in chalk order!”

As the temperature rose to record highs at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia, on 7 July, 34 Soldiers soared closer to a blazing sun on wings of silk to reach new heights of their own.  In an airborne exercise that played out like a textbook Total Force success story, the 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera) from Fort Meade led a team of Reserve and National Guard units in the groundbreaking paradrop of personnel from a helicopter onto the sun-scorched Bowling Green Drop Zone.   The ambitious event had been weeks in the making, and was flawlessly executed in just a matter of hours by the air-ground cooperative.  With each pass over the drop zone, a short staccato of six streamers burst downward from the Black Hawk helicopter, softly blossoming into parachutes in the aircraft’s wake and gracefully alighting on the rolling greenway.

Captain Rock Stevens, the Executive Officer for the 55th  Signal Company (Combat Camera), highlighted the significance of the training.  “Today’s exercise was a historic moment for the 55th, since it was the first Combat Camera-led airborne operation.  This was a huge step forward – a proof of concept demonstrating that our unit can lead air operations involving rotary or fixed wing aircraft.  Now we can step it up with slingloads or follow-on missions.  In combat, we support all combat arms — providing commanders with a battlefield perspective of the front line.  While we’re sometimes considered an after-thought, now we’ve shown that we can be part of the main effort – defeating enemy propaganda and running air operations.”  

Lieutenant Colonel John Harris, commander, 114th Signal Battalion, noted the almost symbiotic nature of the exercise’s planning and execution.  “There are actually a lot of small units in the area that have an airborne mission and need this training.  But since no one unit is large enough, it takes our informal ‘Mid-Atlantic Airborne Coalition’ to get organized and pull something like this off.  And by working together, we all maintain proficiency on our airborne mission essential tasks.” 

Lieutenant Colonel Harris underscored the value of proficiency training saying, “The 55th Combat Camera has a real need to keep their skills current — we had 24 Soldiers jump today.  Our combat camera teams support the Rangers, the 82nd Airborne Division, and special operations units; and as more of our missions involve integrating with these types of forces, training like today’s jump ensures that we can support them.  This exercise fostered team building; the same units we jumped with today — Operational Detachment Alpha Special Operations Forces, riggers, Civil Affairs, and aviation — are the types that we’ll work with in the future:  Definitely, this was the beginning of embedded training with units that we’ll support.” 

Specialist Christopher Baker, a combat photographer for the 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera), also emphasized the credibility this training provides when embedded with other organizations.   “We deploy with multiple units, and sometimes they don’t think we do a lot because we a carry a camera.  But if you have jump wings or an Air Assault badge, they look at you like you have more to offer to the mission.  They put more stock in you. This builds up a rapport and camaraderie with the guys that you’re going out with.” 

And the 55th Signal Company is “going out” a lot!  Major Tyler Shelbert, the company commander, described the unit’s high operational tempo.  “About a third of the company is deployed at any time for Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and various other contingency operations.  In fact, we just had 22 Soldiers return from Iraq, and another 20 are getting ready to go Afghanistan right now.  Increasingly more of our Soldiers are being embedded with front line units, which places a pretty heavy demand on the limited airborne authorized billets in the company.” 

One of the unit’s high-demand paratroopers, Specialist Derrick Tolliver, an all-wheel mechanic, described the experience of parachuting from a helicopter rather than a C-130 cargo plane.  “I last jumped about 3 weeks ago out of a C-130, and it’s totally different.  On a C-130, you sit on a bench seat inside a cramped, closed aircraft, push your way to the door to jump out, and then get snapped around by the shock of the opening parachute.  With a Black Hawk, you sit in the open doorway the whole time, with your legs just flying in the breeze and simply push yourself off the edge.  And you don’t have that initial shock; instead, it’s a very smooth opening.  I think it’s better because it’s simpler.” 

Specialist Baker echoed similar sentiments about the heliborne jump.  “This is my first time out of a Black Hawk.  It was eye-opening… it’s different.  In a C-130, you never see out the door until you jump out; you just follow everyone else in a line to exit the aircraft —there’s no thought process.  But in a Black Hawk, you sit there on the edge and watch the landscape and drop zone develop in front of you.  So this was my first time actually seeing what I was jumping into.  It makes you think more about the jump.” 

Providing that new perspective was a UH-60 Black Hawk aircrew from Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, of the Virginia Army National Guard’s Army Aviation Support Facility at Sandston.  Major W. Keith Nunnally, the battalion operations officer and one of the mission’s pilots, remarked on how smoothly the exercise was executed. “It was a typical summer day with a low breeze — a little hot perhaps — and the drops happened effortlessly.  Training also went very well for the aircrew.   This was our first time training with these units, since we usually support jumps at Fort Bragg or the Rigger School at Fort Lee.   Since tactical jumps are normally conducted by the Air Force, you’ll find that this is not a typical task for most Army aviation units.  That said, paradrops are part of our Commander’s Task List for selected members of our unit to maintain proficiency, and this exercise provided a good training opportunity for us.”  

In addition, some Soldiers of the 55th Signal Company who are going to Air Assault School soon received slingload instruction on the DZ to have a leg up before arriving at the course.  Sergeant Jason Bushong, multi-media team leader, 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera), thought the hands-on preparation was useful.  “This was our second prep class today.  Last month we learned about aircraft capabilities, mission planning, and rigged a HMMWV slingload.   This time we practiced the hand-and-arm signals that guide a helicopter, set up a tactical landing zone incorporating glide-slope ratios, and rehearsed how the ground crew and aircrew work together to accomplish the slingload.  You can read the manual, but that can be pretty dry.  Getting hands-on training is beneficial since it fills in some of the gaps you hadn’t thought of.” 

Major Shelbert summed up the reason for the exercise’s success with one word, “Flexibility… We had a solid plan and were able to adjust to some minor, last-minute changes.  To coordinate the execution of 5 diverse organizations and pull all of this together is quite an experience.  It was good working with the other units and learning from each other about improving our airborne operations.”

Photo caption, upper left: SFC Roderick Jackson of the 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera), 114th Signal Battalion, performs a jump master personnel inspection on a soldier during an airborne operation at Fort A.P. Hill Va. on July 7, 2010. This was the 55th’s first time hosting their own Airborne Operation in the history of the unit. (U.S. Army photo by PFC Brian Kohl) 

Photo caption, middle right: Soldiers of the 55th Signal Company (Combat Combat) take off in a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from HHC/2-224 Aviation for an airborne operation at Fort A.P. Hill Va. on July 7, 2010. (U.S. Army photo by CPL Benjamin Boren) 

Photo caption, middle left: Soldiers of the 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera) prepare to board a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from HHC/2-224 Aviation for an airborne operation at Fort A.P. Hill Va. on July 7, 2010. (U.S. Army photo by CPL Benjamin Boren)

Photo caption, bottom right: Soldiers of the 55th Signal Company (Combat Combat) take off in a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from HHC/2-224 Aviation for an airborne operation at Fort A.P. Hill Va. on July 7, 2010.  (U.S. Army photo by CPL Benjamin Boren)