ABOARD USS SACRAMENTO, At Sea (NNS) -- Relaxing in an encaged workspace adjacent to USS Sacramento's (AOE 1) flight deck, two grease-smudged Sailors pause from conversation to witness the landing of a bulky CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter.
"I love that 'bird,'" said Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Equipment) 2nd Class (AW/NAC) Ryan Johnson. "No other platform can do what she can."
Johnson's squadron, Helicopter Support Squadron (HC) 11, known as the "Gunbearers," is one of the last squadrons to operate the historic Sea Knight.
"Our command will be the last to fly operational 46s," said Johnson.
Since 1964, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have relied on the Sea Knight to haul troops and cargo to various mission-critical areas. In fact, both of the helos operated by Sacramento's Gunbearers Det. 8 witnessed action during the Vietnam War. They are both still decorated with battle scars.
Working closely with the combat aircraft adds a sense of attachment and nostalgia for many of the Gunbearers' crew. The Knighthawk is scheduled to replace the Sea Knight next year, a switch that some are reluctant to make.
"There's definite pride in ownership with these birds," said Senior Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Equipment) (AW/NAC) Joe Ondarza, who has been flying in Sea Knights since 1987. "She's the most versatile 'helo' the Navy has. The 'det' concept allows us to not only deploy on ships, but from the beach, as well. We're completely self-contained."
Unlike squadrons deployed on aircraft carriers that have vast resources of aircraft parts and technicians, the Gunbearers must rely on each other to make sure the job gets done.
"You have to know what you're doing, because there's no one to run to if you don't," said Aviation Maintenance Administrationman (AW) Kristen Hansen. "I enjoy it (being attached to the 'Sac'). We're our own group."
Often times, Gunbearers' crew members are required to crosstrain in other ratings to assist with the high-maintenance requirements of the aging Sea Knights.
"Everyone does a little bit of everything," said Johnson.
So far during the detachment's deployment aboard Sacramento, the Gunbearers have played a key role in providing the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) Carrier Strike Group with needed supplies.
"Logistics - we move cargo, personnel and ordnance. They call, we haul," said Ondarza. "We're the hands of the ship, because we can expand the range in getting objects of interest to other ships in the battle group."
The Gunbearers have delivered more than 10,000 pounds of cargo to various ships in the Vinson strike group.
Despite the many hours of arduous labor this detachment faces keeping its birds in the air, many of the Sailors claim there is no job in the world they would rather have.
"I like the ship. I like the mission. It's a unique job," said Ondarza. "I'd just as soon stay with them until the last 46 flies. My wish is to fly with the last 46 on its last flight."
The Gunbearers will continue to be the hands of Sacramento, while lending a hand to the Carl Vinson strike group, as they enter the second half of their western Pacific deployment.
For related news, visit the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) Navy NewsStand page at www.news.navy.mil/local/cvn70.