HMLAT 303 – Training the Future of Light Attack

Before HMLAT-303 was established in April 1982, Marine Corps helicopter pilots received advanced aircraft training at their fleet squadron after completing basic flight training. Overtime, the Marine Corps realized that this method of training was a drain on squadron operational effectiveness. It recognized the need for a dedicated training squadron that would operate from a high tempo training syllabus to train their young helicopter pilots and enlisted aircrews. The 27th Commandant of the Marine Corps Robert Hilliard Barrow established HMLAT-303 to “provide leadership and professional performance to set new standards in aircrew training.”

Approaching their 30th year anniversary, HMLAT-303 “Atlas” has grown from seven Marines to almost 500 Marines and 45 aircraft. Located at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and part of Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, HMLAT-303 trains Marine Corps pilots assigned to fly either the Cobra or the Huey. Atlas trains approximately 100 replacement aircrews or “RAC” per year and an equal amount of enlisted aircrews. RACs include conversion pilots (pilots coming from another aircraft type), refresher pilots (Huey pilots not current in the UH-1Y), and new pilots fresh from naval flight school (referred to as “RACs”).

Currently, Atlas operates three different rotary aircraft. The UH-1Y Huey, the AH-1W Super Cobra, and the AH-1Z Cobra however, Atlas will soon be operating only the UH-1Y (Yankee) and AH-1Z (Zulu) due to the scheduled retirement of the Super Cobra.

The Bell UH-1Y (also known as the “Yankee” or “Venom”).

The Bell AH-IW (also known as the “Super Cobra” or “Whiskey”).

The Bell AH-IZ (also known as the “Zulu” or “Viper”).

HMLAT-303 is a unique squadron. It’s the largest squadron in the Marine Corps, yet never deploys to combat. Despite its uniqueness, HMLAT-303 shoulders the incredible responsibility for training the Marines who will populate the future community of Light Attack. I wanted to see this squadron in action, meet the men and women who make up its ranks (both enlisted and commissioned), and experience the training of Marine Corps Light Attack aircrews. I made a request and was granted permission to spend three days with Atlas while they were “deployed for training” or DFT at Naval Air Facility El Centro (NAFEC).

In May 2011, HMLAT-303 took 200 Marines and 12 aircraft (a combination of AH-1Ws and UH-1Ys) to NAFEC. While DFT, Atlas would conduct day and night flights that included area familiarization flights, live fire day and night shoots, and low level navigation.

I arrived at hanger three at NAFEC at 4:00pm and met Major Paul “Goose” Gosden the squadron’s Public Affairs Officer as well as the squadron’s senior UH-1Y instructor pilot. Major Gosden gave me a tour around the hanger and ramp and then it was time for him to prepare for his night training flight. At 6:00pm, Major Gosden had a section briefing (pilots of a given flight briefing together) for a two ship (two UH-1Ys) live fire night shoot.

In the briefing room were Major Gosden’s “conversion pilot” – Major Jason Heuer and their flight leader for the night flight – Major Trey “Grinch” Smith and his “conversion pilot” Captain Seth Jerue. Major Heuer and Captain Jerue are experienced UH-1N pilots who are transitioning to the Yankee model Huey and will also be UH-1Y instructor pilots in Atlas. Major Smith started off the briefing by saying he and Major Gosden would get the students thoughts and perspectives based upon their briefing and then provide feedback based on the information contained in their briefing.

Captain Jerue started off the briefing with information on weather, ingress/egress routes, the range, communications, ordinance to be used (2.75 inch rockets, mini gun, and .50 caliber), location of friendly forces on the ground, and shoot/don’t shoot rules of engagement. This was Captain Jerue’s first night live fire rocket shoot in the Yankee and his briefing covered the minute detail of the training flight.

After Captain Jerue’s very detailed briefing, Major Smith asked follow up questions and provided some additional learning points on the briefing. One of the learning points was “make an early decision.” I later asked Captain Jerue what this meant to him. “Basically, it is having everything in the cockpit squared away before you ingress on a target so you can focus on the attack” said Captain Jerue.

After the section brief, I remained with Majors Gosden and Heuer while they conducted their own briefing also called a “cockpit briefing.” Major Gosden started the briefing with his initial expectations, procedures, and an emphasis on emergency procedures, and shoot/don’t shoot rules of engagement. Major Gosden had a saying “if it doesn’t look right, smell right, and/or feel right” it probably isn’t. He emphasized that regarding in-flight emergencies it is better to stay ahead of the aircraft and “fight it on the ground.” He talked about “no fast hands” in the cockpit meaning he wanted his student to talk about what they were doing before they did it.

Tonight’s flight would be called “Grinch Flight.” Major Smith would be flying with the call sign “Atlas 05” and Major Gosden’s as “Atlas 23.” A flights name is derived from the lead pilot’s call sign. An aircraft’s call sign is a combination of the squadron’s name (Atlas) and the Helicopter Aircraft Commander’s (HAC) “rocket” number. A rocket number is a two digit number assigned to each pilot while they are in the squadron.

Both briefings took almost 90 minutes and three times that long for the student pilots to actually prepare for. In fact, for a one hour “Time on Station” live fire night flight it takes many more times that amount of time to prepare for (from pre-flight briefings to debriefing).

Major Jason Heuer and Captain Paul Barron discuss the pre-flight inspection of their UH-1Y.

Captain Paul Barron inspects the tail rotor of his “Yankee.”

After the briefings aircrews started towards their aircrafts. My escort while on the ramp tonight was Lance Corporal Justin Blakeley. Lance Corporal Blakeley is 20 years old and a Plane Captain on the AH-1W and the Yankee model Huey. As a Plane Captain, Lance Corporal Blakely is responsible for ensuring the aircraft is ready to launch. Ground crews, like Lance Corporal Blakely routinely work ten to twelve hour days and by all accounts are instrumental in keeping these combat aircraft flying. They examine mechanical discrepancies and other issues and have the ultimate responsibility on whether or not an aircraft will fly or be grounded. The decisions a 20 year old Plane Captain makes can be directly related to whether or not an aircrew returns from a mission. These young Marines are entrusted with an incredible amount of responsibility. These responsibilities include telling a commissioned officer that he (Plane Captain) is grounding their aircraft and holding to that decision.

Sergeant Lee preps the GAU 16.

Student Crew Chiefs Lance Corporal Trevor Brown (left) and Lance Corporal Nick Edwin assist in the pre-flight of Atlas 23.

Major Paul Gosden (left seat) and Major Jason Heuer prepare for takeoff.

Lance Corporal Trevor Brown moves the fire suppression equipment before “Atlas 23” departs.

I asked Lance Corporal Blakeley what has been his key to success in the United States Marine Corps? He told me the Marine Corps is a complex organization with “a lot of moving parts” and being respectful and using common sense can go a long way.

Grinch Flight departed the ramp at 7:40pm, taxied over to the combat arming and loading area (CALA), and departed NAFEC at 8:40pm. They would arrive on station at the range at 9:00pm, conduct a 60 minute live fire night shoot, and return to NAFEC. Once back at NAFEC, they would de-arm at the CALA by 10:30pm, arrive back on the ramp by 11:00pm, and then conduct a debrief.

While Grinch Flight was on its training mission, I had time to talk to the Marines that were assigned to Flight Equipment. Flight Equipment is responsible for issuing aircrews their required flight gear, such as the latest generation flight helmet used on the Yankee and Zulu (Topowl Helmet Mounted Sight and Display), survival vests, and other miscellaneous flight equipment. In charge of Flight Equipment tonight was Sergeant Stephen Nixon of Hemet, California. Sergeant Nixon has been in the Marine Corps for six years. I asked Sergeant Nixon what he loved most about the Marine Corps and he told me “I love being enlisted. It’s earned respect.” Also working in Flight Equipment tonight was Corporal Patrick Case of Dallas, Texas, a Marine for the last four years and Lance Corporal Anthony Woodward, Sonora, California, a Marine for two years. I asked Corporal Case and Lance Corporal about their Marine Corp experiences. “It’s a great job, good experiences, great camaraderie. The officers in the squadron are always trying to help the enlisted Marines, especially with educational opportunities. The Marine Corps makes you a better man,” said both Corporal Case and Lance Corporal Woodward.

Captain Paul Barron (far right) being helped by Flight Equipment Marines Corporal Patrick Case (far left) and Sergeant Nixon (center).

Lance Corporal Anthony Woodward helps Staff Sergeant Davis with returning his flight gear.

Once Atlas 23 had landed Majors Gosden and Heuer returned their flight gear to Flight Equipment and then found a briefing room to discuss their flight. Major Heuer is currently assigned to HMLAT-303 learning to be an instructor pilot on the Yankee. As Major Gosden said during the debrief, “the left seat is a different beast.” I later spoke to Major Gosden and asked him about his comment on the “left seat.” “The left seat is a different beast for two basic reasons. First, as an instructor, you’re focused on the pilot in the right seat and to a degree not actually flying the aircraft. Second, the left seat in the Yankee is actually lower than the right seat (due to the position of the transmission and aircraft design) giving you a different perspective or ‘sight picture’ when looking outside the aircraft” explained Major Gosden.

During their annual training cycle HMLAT-303 uses approximately 2,300 2.75 inch rockets, 75,000 rounds of 20mm, 9,000 rounds of .50 caliber, and 45,000 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition. While deployed for training at El Centro, Atlas conducted 120 day and 120 night training sorties, of which there were live fire training missions during the day and night. None of these live fire shoots would occur without the Marines of Aviation Ordnance. The Aviation Ordnance department plays a vital role in the training tempo of Atlas and is responsible for weapons, ammunition inventory, loading and unloading of the aircraft weapons, and weapons maintenance.

In charge of the Aviation Ordnance shop when I arrived was Master Sergeant Keith Brown from South Carolina. Master Sergeant Brown, who arrived at HMLAT-303 in March 2011, is a career Marine with 18 years of Marine Corps service and has spent most of his career in the fixed wing community. I asked Master Sergeant Brown what makes HMLAT-303 different when compared to other squadrons. He said, “Our role is important because we are getting aircrews ready for their Victor squadrons” (A “Victor” squadron is another name for a fleet squadron). I asked Master Sergeant Brown about life as a Marine and the young Marines he supervises. He told me you have to have a “passion and love for our country” to be a Marine. These kids coming into the Corps today are much smarter than past generations and are here because they want to be here. According to Brown, “the days of JJ Jarhead are gone. These young Marines are very responsible, dedicated kids.”

I also spoke to Sergeant Heather Ambute, a Marine for 12 years with several combat tours under her belt. Sergeant Ambute is an Aviation Ordnance Marine and has done so since she enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1999. Sergeant Ambute came to HMLAT-303 six months ago after serving with various CH-53 squadrons. As I have asked several other Marines, I asked Sergeant Ambute how HMLAT-303 compares to other fleet squadrons. “The HMLAT-303 Marines have a get it done attitude” said Ambute. Sergeant Ambute told me she is still adjusting to “not seeing an end state or end results” as she did with her other fleet squadrons, but finds it rewarding to be training young Marines in Aviation Ordnance. She added, “I enjoy always being the little sister and knowing I will always have my big brothers.”

In addition to Aviation Ordnance Marines working in the hanger based shop, they also are responsible for loading, arming, unloading, de-arming, and maintaining munitions inventory in an area known as the Combat Arming and Loading Area or CALA. Aircraft don’t leave the ramp armed, although they do leave with their weapons mounted and ready to be loaded. Once at the CALA, Aviation Ordnance Marines will load the aircraft according to the mission profile.

By 11:00am I was standing on the NAFEC CALA with Atlas Aviation Ordnance Marines Staff Sergeant Ethan Adams from Bakersfield, California (a Marine for 13 years), Sergeant Tim Nelson from Fort Smith, Arkansas (a Marine for six years), Corporal Dan Quinn from San Diego, California (a Marine for four years), Corporal Matt Luc from Rochester, New York (a Marine for five years), and Lance Corporal Leslie Harris from Shawnee, Oklahoma (a Marine for two years).

The first flight of two Atlas Cobras arrived at the CALA at 11:30am. Once at the CALA, AH-1W aircrews shut down and secure their aircraft before Aviation Ordnance Marines would start loading ammunition. Today’s Cobra mission load outs were 2.75 inch rockets and 20mm cannon ammunition. First to be loaded was the 20mm cannon. The AH-1W has an M-197 three barrel Gatling cannon that fires 650 rounds a minute by way of linked ammunition via a magazine. The 200+ pound magazine took three Marines to muscle it into the magazine storage compartment, located underneath the pilot and co-pilot seat of the aircraft. Once the 20mm magazine was in place, one Marine is responsible for getting ammunition into the feed chute and preparing it to be armed.

Captain Shuck and First Lieutenant Matt Tiemann tie down the tail rotor before Ordnance Marine load their AH-1W.

Aviation Marines (clockwise) Corporal Dan Quinn (nearest helicopter with Camelback on), Lance Corporal Leslie Harris, and Corporal Matt Luc muscle the 200 plus pound 20mm ammunition drum into a HMLAT-303 Cobra.

After loading the 20mm Gatling cannon, Aviation Ordnance Marines loaded the rocket pods. Each AH-1W today was carrying two 2.75 inch rocket pods (each holding 19 rockets). Each rocket weights approximately 70 pounds and is manually loaded onto the Cobra’s rocket pods.

Sergeant Tim Nelson loads a 70 pound 2.75 inch rocket into Captain Shuck’s Cobra.

The final stage before the aircraft departs for the live fire range is for it to be armed. Even after being loaded, the weapons systems are not able to fire. After being loaded, aircrews return to their aircraft and hover taxi over to the arm/de-arm area, several 100 yards from the loading/unloading area. Once at the arming area, the pilot and co-pilot will hold their arms over their heads. This indicates to the Aviation Ordnance Marines that the pilot’s hands are off any weapon system triggers thus eliminating the possibility for having an accidental discharge in the arming area. With rotor blades spinning, Aviation Ordnance Marines climb underneath and around the aircraft arming the various weapons systems. Once armed, pilots will get a “thumbs up” from the Aviation Ordnance Marines and then depart.

Corporal Quinn carries a 2.75 inch training rocket to one the Cobras two 19 round rocket pods.

When this flight of two Cobras returned, the process is basically reversed. Aircraft returning from live fire ranges, first land at the arm/de-arming area so their weapons can be made safe. In the event aircraft returns out of ammunition or “Winchester,” the Aviation Ordnance Marines simply “safe” the weapon systems and the aircrew is able to taxi back to the ramp and skip the unload process. No one appreciates a “Winchester” aircraft more than Aviation Ordnance Marines. A Winchester aircraft means that there is no unloading of a 200+pound 20mm magazine, counting each 20mm round for re-inventory and/or removing 70 pound 2.75 inch rockets from the rocket pods. As tradition holds, Aviation Ordnance Marines celebrate this condition by giving the aircrew a “Winchester dance.” The Winchester dance is simply Aviation Ordnance Marines “busting a move” in celebration not having to unload ordnance off the aircraft and that the aircrew had a successful mission.

An Atlas Cobra returns with no ammunition left on board or “Winchester” prompting a “Winchester Dance” by Corporal Luc (far left), Corporal Quinn (center), and Sergeant Nelson.

Lance Corporal Harris hustles away from an AH-1W after arming the 2.75 inch rocket pod.

Aviation Ordnance Marines are also weapons system mechanics who are qualified to get weapons back in operational condition thus allowing the flight to continue and not be “scrubbed.” I saw this first hand when a failure in the 20mm weapon system was found in a Cobra. While loading the 20mm ammunition “feeder,” Lance Corporal Harris discovered the “feeder” was broken. The feeder was quickly removed and Corporal Quinn began to repair it. In very short order, it was determined that the feeder wasn’t repairable at the CALA. After the Aviation Ordnance Marines conferred with the aircrew, the decision was made to replace the feeder back in the aircraft and because the mission was a rocket shoot the mission could continue.

Sergeant Nelson also tries to get the 20mm weapon system working on aircraft 451.

With the 20mm feeder removed, Corporal Quinn attempts to repair it onsite.

While at the CALA, I had the opportunity to talk with an Atlas Cobra aircrew, Instructor Pilot Captain Todd “Cash” Shuck and his student pilot First Lieutenant Matt Tiemann. Captain Shuck and First Lieutenant Tiemann were waiting for their aircraft to be loaded and wingman, that was still on the ramp at hanger three, to arrive.

I asked Captain Shuck, a Marine Corps helicopter for the last nine years, what made Atlas different from other squadrons he has been apart of. Captain Shuck told me that HMLAT-303 gets RACs used to flying the Huey or Cobra. We get them out of the flight school mindset of basic civilian flight principles and start preparing them to “fight the aircraft.” HMLAT-303 gives RACs about 10-15 percent of they will get when they are assigned to a fleet squadron.

Captain Shuck (center) debriefs his flights live fire training sortie with Atlas RACs while at the CALA.

Aviation Ordnance Marines repeated this load/unload/arm/de-arm process many times throughout the 90 degree day. By 6pm the last aircraft departed the CALA and these Aviation Ordnance Marines headed back to the hanger to debrief and secure their equipment.

I left the CALA beyond impressed with the caliber of Marines that work Aviation Ordnance. These Marines hustled all day long in extreme temperatures making sure all aircraft were loaded or unloaded and/or armed or de-armed as quickly and more importantly as a safely as possible.

After returning from the CALA, I had the opportunity to speak with the squadron’s Operation Officer or “Ops O” Major Chris “Hedgehog” Donnelly. Major Donnelly has been a Marine for 13½ years, a Cobra pilot since 2004, and has three combat tours. As the squadron’s Operation Officer and third in command (after the Commanding Officer and Executive Officer), Major Donnelly is responsible for the daily operation of the squadron, both from an aircraft and personnel perspective. These responsibilities include flight scheduling, training events, and scheduling of ground training (firearms, tear gas, etc). The “Ops O” must forecast these responsibilities six to twelve months in advance. 

I asked Major Donnelly about being a Cobra pilot instructor and the training syllabus at HMLAT-303. “Each student is assigned to Atlas for 26 weeks and during that time, has 48 training evolutions consisting of three simulator flights and 45 actual training flights in a Cobra or Huey with an instructor pilot. The flight schedules are intensive and students typically work ten hour days. When students leave HMLAT-303 they have approximately 70 hours in their respective aircraft” explained Major Donnelly.

After a long and intensive training flight, an equally critical debrief follows.  According to Major Donnelly, “on any given training flight, a student may do 19 things correct. However, it’s the one thing a student did wrong, the one thing that could get him/her, their aircrew, and/or Marines on the ground killed and that’s the focus of the debrief.”

“Re-greening the students, getting them back to a Marine Corps mindset” is also a responsibility of Atlas says Major Donnelly. RACs assigned to HMLAT-303 are fresh from naval flight school where they have learned the basics of flying military aircraft but not necessarily learning how to fly and fight a combat aircraft. Atlas begins the “fighting the aircraft” syllabus and a RACs respective fleet squadron will complete it.

Atlas RACs prepare for an upcoming training flight.

The second in command of the squadron is the Executive Officer or the “XO.” Holding the rank of Major, the Executive officer basically runs the staff or commissioned officers within the squadron, manages the day to day activities, and acts on behalf of the CO in their absence.

HMLAT-303s Executive Officer is Major Tres “Grinch” Smith. Major Smith is a 16 year Marine who graduated from flight school in 1997 and arrived at HMLAT-303 as a young Second Lieutenant in 1998. I asked Major Smith why he chose rotary wing. He told me that after flight school, he had no desire to fly a Marine Corps jet at 15,000 feet when you can’t see what’s happening on the ground. “To fly at 150 knots at 50 feet off the deck is an incredible rush” said Smith. Major Smith’s first choice in rotary wing aircraft was the AH-1 Cobra, however he wasn’t selected and next chose UH-1 Hueys. Fast forward 13 years, with 2,900 flight hours in the Huey (500 of those hours in combat), two combat tours in Iraq, one combat tour in Afghanistan, and the recent recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, Major Smith is very happy with aircraft the Marine Corps chose for him.

I asked Major Smith what makes Atlas unique. “We are formulating experience for the student pilot that they will use in their fleet squadron. Atlas could be called a super flight school in that we are going to show you Light Attack and the beginning stages of how to fly and fight the aircraft. Our job is to find the “service ceiling” of our Marines and go from there. “We have some extraordinary individuals in this squadron and there are generations of stories of Atlas Marines who have done phenomenal things in combat. I don’t know if it’s Marine Corps recruitment and/or the training here at HMLAT-303 that makes successful aircrews, all I know is that it works” explains Major Smith. It was during this interview that I discovered Major Smith had received orders for an east coast assignment and would soon be leaving Atlas.

Major Smith in full flight gear, including the Topowl flight helmet.

Major Tres “Grinch” Smith explains a “squawk” to the “Atlas 03” Plane Captain.

Replacing Major Smith as the squadron’s Executive Officer would be Major Jason “Woogie” Heuer. Major Heuer has been assigned to Atlas since June 2010 and is conversion pilot obtaining his qualification in the Yankee and working towards his designation as a UH-1Y instructor pilot. I spoke with Major Heuer about the role of HMLAT-303. “Everything we do is designed to put ordnance downrange and fully supporting the Marine on the ground” said Major Heuer.

The purpose of HMLAT-303 since it’s inception in 1982 is to train Light Attack (Hueys and Cobras) aircrews that includes pilots, instructor pilots, and Crew Chiefs.

First Lieutenant Matt Tiemann is one of HMLAT-303s AH-1W RACs. I asked First Lieutenant Tiemann what it was like being a “RAC” in Atlas. He told me “it’s like TBS meets flight school.” TBS or “The Basic School” is a 26 week course that indoctrinates newly commissioned officers on what is expected of them as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. All commissioned officers, regardless of their Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) complete TBS before advancing to their MOS. First Lieutenant Tiemann told me “preparedness for the operation” is one of the keys to success at HMLAT-303. First Lieutenant Tiemann added “There are a lot of people that get the helicopter flying, not just the pilot.” Soon after this interview, First Lieutenant Tiemann successfully completed his Cobra syllabus and is now assigned to his first fleet squadron – HMLA-167 the Warriors based at Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina.

An excited First Lieutenant Kangas walks from his AH-1W with his final “X” for the Cobra training syllabus completed.

First Lieutenant Matt Kangas, like First Lieutenant Tiemann, was fresh from flight school when he arrived at Atlas in fall 2010 and is going through the AH-1W syllabus. I spoke to First Lieutenant Kangas after he finished his final flight as a “RAC” at HMLAT-303 and asked him about the flight. “It was a two hour flight involving emergency policies and procedures, tactics, and instrument flying” said First Lieutenant Kangas. I asked First Lieutenant Kangas how he felt after getting his final X and he told me “It was a great feeling setting down on the ramp knowing I had got my last X.” After a 30 day leave, the intense learning for First Lieutenant Matt Kangas will continue. Kangas was assigned to HMLA-269 Gunrunners based at Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina.

In addition to training pilots in the AH-1W and UH-1Y, HMLAT-303 is responsible for training Enlisted Aircrews. These Enlisted Aircrews consist of Crew Chiefs and Aerial Observers. The responsibility of a Marine Corps helicopter Crew Chief is to assist the pilots with safely operating the aircraft during take off and landings due to the Crew Chiefs 180 degree view of the aircrafts surroundings verses the pilots more restricted view. Crew Chiefs also operate any of the crew served mounted weapons including the GAU-16/GAU-21 (.50 caliber machine gun), the GAU-17 (7.62mm minigun) and the M-240 (7.62 machine gun). Crew Chiefs also have a basic understanding of the aircraft’s systems and how to repair critical operating systems. An Aerial Observer is basically considered a Crew Chief, goes through the same training, however is minus several qualifications that are required by the Crew Chief MOS.

Just like pilots that prepare hours before a flight, Crew Chiefs follow a similar pre-flight routine. A flight for a Crew Chief at Atlas starts with an assignments from a Staff Sergeant who assigns flight schedules. Because Atlas is a training squadron, these flight assignments are frequently based on the training needs of the students. Once the assignments are made and several hours before the flight, the student(s) will start their pre-flight briefings. The first briefing includes the broad spectrum of the flight and then on the student(s) specific responsibilities for the flight. Closer to flight time, there will be a 30 minute pre-flight briefing with the pilots.

About an hour before the flight, the Crew Chiefs will walk to the aircraft and pre-flight the weapons systems and back of the aircraft. Crew Chiefs are completely responsible for ensuring that the weapons systems are operational as well as everything in the back of the aircraft is secured and ready for flight. 30 minutes before the flight, the pilots will arrive at the aircraft and pre-flight the aircraft with the help of the Crew Chiefs.

After the flight, there is a debrief with the pilots. Because the Huey is a crew concept aircraft, there is a two way guided discussion involving what the pilots wants the Crew Chiefs to improve on and what the Crew Chiefs need the pilots to improve on. After the aircrew debrief, there is a student Crew Chief debrief where the Crew Chief instructor(s) will critique the students performance. All these debriefs have the purpose of making a more efficient, effective, and safer Huey aircrew.

HMLAT-303 Crew Chiefs (left to right) Corporal Shaun Hrubesky, Sergeant Dave Herwig, and Staff Sergeant Matt Horschel.

Enlisted student aircrews arrive at HMLAT-303 after completing a month long Naval Aircrew Candidates School (NACS). Enlisted student aircrews spend six months at Atlas learning all aspects of the duties and responsibilities of being a crew chief/aerial observer. These student aircrews have the good fortune of being trained by some of the best Crew Chiefs in the Marine Corps. One such Crew Chief instructor is Staff Sergeant Bart Davis.

Staff Sergeant Bart Davis – HMLAT-303 Crew Chief Instructor.

Staff Sergeant Davis, Saint Louis, Missouri, has been in the Marine Corps for eight years. In those eight years, Staff Sergeant Davis has four combat tours (three in Iraq and one in Afghanistan), awarded the Marine Corps Aviation Association’s “Enlisted Aircrew Marine of the Year,” and the recent recipient of a Distinguished Flying Cross. I asked Staff Sergeant Davis why he selected “Crew Chief” when he entered the Marine Corps as opposed to another MOS. His answer was easy and straightforward, “It is what the Marine Corps selected for me.”

After four combat tours and having volunteered for a fifth, the Marine Corps thought Staff Sergeant Davis’ experience and skill set was better served at HMLAT-303 rather than a fifth deployment to combat. Staff Sergeant Davis has been assigned to Atlas for the last 7 months teaching student aircrews. As a Crew Chief instructor, Staff Sergeant Davis has trained 19 Crew Chiefs and 8 Aerial Observers. In addition, he frequently is tasked with training current Crew Chiefs at various squadrons at Camp Pendleton because of his qualifications as an Aerial Gunner instructor, a Weapons and Tactics instructor, and an instructor on the new GAU-21(.50 caliber machine gun set to replace the GAU-16).

I asked Staff Sergeant Davis what was his biggest challenge when he was teaching young Marines how to be Crew Chiefs. “Getting young Lance Corporals not to be intimidated by rank and talk to the pilots. One of the roles of the Crew Chiefs is letting the pilots know the position of the aircraft when landing, etc” said Davis. Crew communication is crucial and can have life or death consequences. Sometimes the pilots will help the crew chief instructor by coming into a landing “hot” thus requiring the student Crew Chief to take action. This is just another example of how the aircrew of the Yankee works as one.

I had the opportunity to speak with four of Staff Sergeant Davis’ student Crew Chiefs. One student Lance Corporal Brian Davidson from Baltimore, Maryland, has been a Marine for five years, and was originally assigned to Aviation Ordnance. I spoke with Lance Corporal Davidson about his experiences as a student Crew Chief. “Being a crew chief is the best job in the Marine Corps. You get to fly around, shoot guns, and save the world! The hard part is the amount of knowledge needed to be successful. I spend many hours a night studying so I am prepared for the next day’s evolution” said Davidson. I asked Lance Corporal Davidson if he had a hard time telling pilots, commissioned officers, many with combat tours under their belts, what to do in terms of flying the aircraft. Said Lance Corporal Davidson, “I love telling people what to do.”

Next, I spoke to student Crew Chiefs Lance Corporal Elizabeth Briseno, from Boise, Idaho and a Marine for the last 14 months and Private First Class Lillia Montes, from El Paso, Texas and a Marine for 12 months. I asked both Marines what made them interested in being a Crew Chief. They told me that the Crew Chief MOS is one of the few that allow a female into combat and combat is where they both wanted to go. Although they said the road to becoming a Crew Chief is strenuous, requires a lot of memorization, and many hours of off duty studying. Lance Corporal Briseno and Private First Class Montes are approximately one third of the way through the Crew Chief syllabus at HMLAT-303. I asked Lance Corporal Briseno and Private First Class Lillia Montes what was the hardest portion of the course. Lance Corporal Briseno told me “it was memorizing information and then applying that during practical application scenarios.” Private First Class Montes said, it was” knowing the aircraft systems.”

Corporal Britney Walters walks away from “Atlas 23” with pride. She received her final “X” and was subsequently designated as one of the Marine Corps newest Aerial Observers.

Lastly, I spoke with Corporal Britney Walters a Marine for the last three years. Corporal Walters is an aircraft mechanic and a rifle and pistol coach. She signed up for the Aerial Observer program because she liked the idea of flying as part of an aircrew. On May 13, 2011, Corporal Walters passed her final Aerial Observer check ride and has subsequently graduated from the Aerial Observer program.

As with any other Marine Corps squadron, there is a Sergeant Major of the squadron. The Sergeant Major is the senior enlisted advisor to the squadron Commanding Officer and handles issues among the enlisted ranks. For HMLAT-303, Sergeant Major William Slade holds that position. Sergeant Major Slade was not at El Centro when I was there, so I later spoke with him at his office above the HMLAT-303 hangers at Camp Pendleton. I asked Sergeant Major Slade what was his role in Atlas? “I am the senior enlisted advisor to the CO and I am responsible for discipline and morale of the squadron’s enlisted ranks” said Sergeant Major Slade. Next, I asked Sergeant Major Slade what makes HMLAT-303 different from the other squadrons. Slade explained, “It’s all about the Commanding Officer. Our CO (referring to Lieutenant Colonel Brian Kennedy CO of HMLAT-303 at the time of the interview.) has vision and enables and empowers his enlisted leaders to take action.” Lastly, I asked Sergeant Major Slade about Atlas’ motto of training the future of light attack. Sergeant Major Slade told me “HMLAT-303 isn’t an assembly line simply getting Marine aircrews to go through the motions. We are getting them ready for combat and we take that very serious.”

Lieutenant Colonel Brian “Howdy” Kennedy talks with his Atlas Marines on the ramp of NAFEC.

My last interview at HMLAT-303 was with the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Brian “Howdy” Kennedy. Lieutenant Colonel Kennedy joined the Marine Corps during the Cold War era, has 3,500 hours in the AH-1 Cobra with two combat tours, and first pulled the “trigger” in combat at the age of 38.

I told Lieutenant Colonel Kennedy that in my three days with HMLAT-303 in El Centro I sensed a unique level of pride, success, and morale from all the Marines that comprised Atlas. With that observation, I asked Lieutenant Colonel Kennedy what his key to successfully commanding this squadron.

“I see the United States Marine Corps today in the best shape it’s ever been in throughout our history and recognize that Marines with less than 10 years of service all joined after 911 2001. They knew what they were getting into and hence are true patriots in my eyes. Nobody ever joined the Marine Corps to ‘get by’ or to be mediocre – they all want to excel and to shoulder great responsibility. When they are treated like the top 2% of American society, which they are, they have tendency to reenlist, have great morale, and be more productive. The key to success is morale and esprit de corps. When Marines, at all levels, are thrilled about their jobs and taking care of one another before themselves, you can’t fail,” said Lieutenant Colonel Kennedy.

HMLAT-303 motto is “Training the Future of Light Attack.” As a training squadron of 500 Marines, many that rotate in and out during the year, 100 Replacement Aircrews and Enlisted Aircrews that are annually assigned to the squadron, Atlas is truly touching the Marines that will populate the Light Attack community for generations to come.

It was my honor to spend three days with the men and women of United States Marine Corps squadron HMLAT-303 Atlas and have the opportunity to tell the stories about their roles in the world of rotary wing Light Attack. This article would not have been possible with the complete support of the men and women of Atlas. I want to express my sincere thanks to all the Marines who made time to talk with me, explain their jobs, and give me insight on their assignments, and their roles as Marines during their exceptionally busy schedules.

A very special thanks to Lieutenant Colonel Kennedy for allowing me access to his outstanding squadron during his command, Major Smith for sharing is incredible insight on the inner workings and role of Atlas, Captain Dono for providing me with the historical aspects of HMLAT-303, and last but not least, Major Gosden. Goose made the access to HMLAT-303 happen through his chain of command. In addition, he has been a wealth of information as I developed this article and allowed me additional squadron access for follow up interviews with Atlas Marines.