On Avondale-built Somerset, Coast Guard helicopters are the first to land

By Paul Purpura The Times-Picayune

 Two U.S. Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawks were the first helicopters to land on the Somerset's flight deck. (Lt. David Blunier, U.S. Coast Guard)

Two U.S. Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawks were the first helicopters to land on the Somerset’s flight deck. (Lt. David Blunier, U.S. Coast Guard)

Although their vessel won’t officially join the fleet until next month, the sailors aboard the last U.S. Navy warship to be built at the Avondale shipyard didn’t waste any time in preparing for their seafaring missions. Two days after pulling out of the West Jefferson shipyard, en route to Pennsylvania to commission their USS Somerset, the crew aboard the amphibious transport dock joined with Coast Guard aviators for helicopter training qualifications in the Gulf of Mexico, the Coast Guard said Thursday.

Coast Guard flight crews based in Mobile, Ala., launched two MH-60T Jayhawk helicopters on Feb. 5 for joint training operations with the Somerset’s crew, the Coast Guard. It was the first time helicopters landed on the 684-foot ship’s flight deck, the agency said.Coast Guard aircrews from Aviation Training Center Mobile delivered parts and supplies to the Somerset crew as it transited the gulf. The coasties performed more than 60 daytime and nighttime landings on the ship, some using night-vision goggles.

The aircrews participated in “vertical replenishment sling loads,” or lowering supplies to the ship, and in refueling operations. The Coast Guard said its operations helped qualify and certify the Somerset crew to handle aviation operations. Coast Guard aviators benefited, too, as the operation counted toward their semi-annual deck landing training.

The Somerset, one of the San Antonio-class warships, is designed to carry as many as 800 Marines and their gear. They can be transported to shore by helicopters or Osprey vertical-tilt aircraft, or by amphibious vessels that launch from the ship’s well deck.

The ship is one of three built to honor the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Somerset is named for the Pennsylvania field where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed, killing 40 passengers and crew. Passengers rallied and overwhelmed the terrorist hijackers, whom authorities suspect were going to strike a target in Washington.

One of the passengers, Todd Beamer, was heard telling others on the flight, “Let’s roll,” before they attacked the terrorists. His last known words are printed in large letters on the Somerset’s hangar bay doors.

The Somerset is to be commissioned March 1, in Philadelphia. When it left Avondale on Feb. 3, well-wishers went to the Mississippi River levees in the New Orleans area to see the ship leave.

The other ships honoring the attacks or [sic – are] the USS New York, also built in Avondale, and the [USS] Arlington, named for the Pentagon [victims] and built in Pascagoula, Miss. The USS New York departed Avondale in 2009, and it, too, received a send-off from area residents who lined the levees.

The Somerset will join the Navy’s Pacific Fleet. Its crew, called the pre-commissioning unit, lived in the New Orleans area until their ship departed last week.

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