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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Combat Operations: Matting Down Brownout, Engine Wear

Richard Whittle

THE U.S. MARINE CORPS IS PLEASED WITH A NEW lightweight helicopter landing pad it began using in Iraq in 2006 to prevent losses from brownout. The service recently added the CGEAR Tactical HeliMat to its list of standard equipment for expeditionary airfields.

CW4 Edward Collier, expeditionary airfield officer for the Marines, said the 105-sq-ft, open-weave polypropylene HeliMat is being bought to complement heavier, polyester Mobi-Mats, or "triscuit pads," the Marines and Army have used since the late 1990s.

In the ongoing fight against brownout, the U.S. Marine Corps is arming its landing pads with mats designed to keep dirt and dust on the ground.

The Corps wants both types because while the Tactical HeliMat is lighter and thus easier to handle, it "doesn’t have any load-bearing characteristic, so if the soil isn’t hard, it’ll start rutting really bad," Collier explained. The Marines have used the new mats at forward arming and refueling points in Iraq.

The Mobi-Mat (shown below) is made in France and distributed by Deschamps Mat Systems, Inc. of Little Falls, N.J. It is three times heavier than the HeliMat and can be used on softer soil. Mobi-Mats came to the attention of U.S. forces in Bosnia, where French troops were using them to get vehicles over muddy or icy terrain, Collier said.

The Tactical HeliMat is manufactured in China for CGEAR of Australia and distributed in the United States by Aero International, Inc. of Sterling, Va. Originally designed as a camping mat, the pad’s patented open weave allows sand and dirt to sift down through the mat but prevents it from blowing back up.

No statistical measure has been developed to gauge the effectiveness of such mats in preventing aircraft or engine losses from brownout, but since the Marines started using the new HeliMat about a year ago, Collier said, "As far as we’re aware, there haven’t been any brownout losses."

The HeliMat comes in 21X21 ft, foldable squares that weigh about 50 lb each, making it easier to move than the sturdier Mobi-Mat. The HeliMat’s squares attach to each other with "hook and loop" edges and Velcro straps. They are anchored to the ground with metal pegs 1-3 ft long to create a suitably large landing pad.

The Mobi-Mat comes in 14 X 34 ft squares that are rolled for transport and require two people to carry them. They can also be used to allow motor vehicles to ford shallow streams, to create beach roadways or as tent flooring and walkways.

Either type of mat is less durable but far easier to deploy than the AM2 aluminum mats used by the Air Force, Navy and Marines for fixed-wing expeditionary airfields.

Paul Reiff, expeditionary airfield program manager for Naval Air Systems Command in Lakehurst, N.J., said NavAir gave each company a $5 million contract last year after losing "significant numbers of engines because of brownout" in Iraq. Collier said Navair plans to spend another $5 million on each type of mat in this fiscal year.

"HeliMats are one quarter the price of Mobi-Mats," Reiff said. "We’re fielding it to every Marine Wing support squadron," meaning 13 squadrons, including reserve units.

Neither of the man-portable mats can handle Bell Helicopter/Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotors, which the Marines are to deploy for the first time this year in Iraq and are buying to replace their Boeing CH-46 Sea Knights. When the Osprey lands in helicopter mode, its engine exhausts point downward from only 4 ft 4 in above the ground, which would melt or burn the plastic mats.

Greg Peters, executive chairman of HeliMat maker CGEAR, said his company was "working on a product which will use different materials to withstand the heat of the Osprey." He also is marketing his HeliMat to the Army and to the militaries of various U.S. allies, Peters said, but so far the Marines are the only service that has bought it.

Alex Hamon, defense sales manager for Deschamps Mat Systems, said his company already has "a product that can resist a V-22 landing. I’m just waiting for testing."

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