HMLAT-303 Atlas Returns to Naval Air Facility – El Centro

In June 2012, Military Aviation Journal joined HMLAT-303 Atlas when they returned to Naval Air Facility – El Centro (NAFEC) located in the desert 110 miles east of San Diego, California. NAFEC is one of world’s finest training facilities due to the proximity of live fire ranges, desert environment that resembles the terrain of Iraq and Afghanistan, and nearly 365 days a year flying weather.

Atlas was “Deployed for Training” (DFT) to El Centro to conduct live fire weapons training, low level navigation exercises, and formation flying. These training missions would be flown with Atlas UH-1Ys Hueys and AH-1Ws Cobras.

This is the second time I have joined Atlas at NAFEC. My first trip was in May 2011 and afterwards I wrote an article called “HMLAT-303 – Training the Future of Light Attack.” Before detailing my latest adventure with HMLAT-303, I first want to briefly explain the history and mission of HMLAT-303 and importance Atlas has to Marine Corps rotary wing light attack. For a more detailed account of HMLAT-303, please read my first article.

Atlas History

HMLAT-303 is a unique squadron in that 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.

Having just celebrated their 30th year anniversary, Atlas has grown from seven Marines and a few aircraft 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 AH-1W Cobra, AH-1Z Cobra, or the UH-1Y Huey. Atlas trains approximately 100 replacement aircrews or “RAC” per year and an equal amount of enlisted aircrews. These RACs are trained by the finest Huey and Cobra instructor pilots in the Marine Corps. Atlas has approximately 60 Instructor Pilots of which all have combat experience and many have seen multiple combat tours. These combat experiences allow for Atlas Instructor Pilots to share their wartime knowledge and insight to young Marine Corps helicopter pilots.

During my four days with Atlas, I was able to spend considerable time on the ramp, the Combat Arming and Loading Area (CALA), and most importantly speaking the men and women, both commissioned and enlisted who comprise HMLAT-303. These Marines range from pilots, to maintainers, to flight equipment, to aviation ordnance, and to the command staff.

My escort and squadron liaison for the week was Major Kyuwon “Spike” Lee. Major Lee, also known as “Q” has been in the Marine Corps for 19 years, has deployed to Iraq twice and Afghanistan once, and is a UH-1Y Senior Instructor Pilot for HMLAT-303.

The Ramp

Lance Corporal Kevin Herrera checks the tail rotor gearbox on on a UH-1Y Huey

An Atlas Marine snaps a salute to a departing aircraft.

Corporal PJ Hogan moves fire equipment before a Cobra departs.

The ramp is a beehive of activity prior to a launch.  Hours before, Atlas aircrews man their helicopters Marines are already at work.  A small cadre of Marines from Flight Line mechanics like Lance Corporal George Hamil and PFC Ian Naylor and Plane Captains like Corporal PJ Hogan are inspecting and servicing UH-1Ys and AH-1Ws. These Marines, especially when on DFT, work 12-hour plus days under a wide variety of conditions to ensure their aircraft are combat ready.

Combat Arming and Loading Area           

Staff Sergeant Clay Bell (holding clip board) signs off on munitions received from MALS-39 Marines Sergeant Alan Whaley (center) and Corporal Jason Kilmer (far right).

Sergeant Chris Beyl (left) and Lance Corporal Mike Wemhoner load 20mm ammunition.

This DFT included live fire shooting exercises and I had made arrangements to spend the next “shoot day” at the Combat Arming and Loading Area (CALA). Before leaving for the CALA, I met the AtlasAviation Ordnance Marines including Staff Sergeant Clay Bell (a 12 year Marine from “deep Texas”). Before going to the CALA, Staff Sergeant Bell made arrangements for me to join the MALS-39 Marines in order to have a better understanding of Marine Corps Aviation Ordnance.

Corporal Tim Bell makes a final check on the 2.75 rocket pod on a AH-1W Cobra.

Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 39 or MALS-39 is also based at Camp Pendleton. The purpose of MALS-39 is to supply, repair, and support Marine Corps aviation squadrons. In terms of the Aviation Ordnance Marines of HMLAT-303, MALS-39 would be providing the ammunition and munitions for the Atlas live fire shoot. Usually a day before the scheduled “shoot exercise” MALS-39 Marines prepare the munitions for the scheduled exercise. This preparation includes the assembly of any rockets and/or missiles to be used. The ammunition requires no assembly, but the 2.75-inch rockets do. The rockets are transported in two sections – the warhead and motor. The warhead is the end of the rocket that contains the explosives. The rockets used in today’s training would be inert (non-explosive and color coded-blue). The motor assembly contains (as you might guess) the motor and is the main body of the rocket. The motor assembly housing also contains the fins that stabilize the rocket in flight and provide its accuracy. Each rocket can be assembly in five minutes.

HMLAT-303 Aviation Ordnance Marines load a magazine loaded with 20mm ammunition into a Cobra.

For today’s Atlas shoot, we would need 7.62mm ammunition for the GAU-17 (six barreled mini-gun) and M-240 (belt fed machine gun), 20mm cannon ammunition for the AH-1W M-197 three barrel Gatling cannon, and 2.75 inch rockets.

The 2.75-inch rocket is used for area suppression, anti-personnel, and light armored vehicles and used by either Cobras or Hueys. Other uses of the 2.75-inch rocket are illumination (overt of covert) and marking of targets by using white phosphorus.  The AH-1W carries 19 round rocket pods and the UH-1Y carries a seven round rocket pod. The Atlas shoot today would consist of both Cobras and Hueys conducting gun and rocket training.

I joined Staff Sergeant Bell, Sergeant Beyl, Corporal Bell, Lance Corporal White, and Lance Corporal Wemhoner at the Combat Arming and

PT – Aviation Ordnance style!

Loading Area at 12:00 pm with temperatures well over 100 degrees. I spent the next 5 hours with these Atlas Aviation Ordnance Marines as they loaded and unloaded 20mm and 7.62 caliber ammunition and 2.75 rockets on HMLAT-303 Cobras and Hueys. These Marines worked non-stop to ensure that the Atlas aircraft were safely armed and unarmed during the training flights.

Going Home

The final day of the deployment was Friday. Some HMLAT-303 Marines would be fortunate to fly back to Camp Pendleton in their Cobras or Hueys and be home by dinnertime. Those remaining Marines would be facing a three-hour drive back to Camp Pendleton in 110-degree heat. However, a few Atlas Marines had a little luck going for them on that Friday and it was called – Logistic Embark Training.

Atlas Marines board a HMMT-164 CH-46.

Also Deployed for Training to Naval Air Facility – El Centro was HMMT-164 Knightriders. HMMT-164 Knightriders is the CH-46E Sea Knight/Phrog equivalent to Atlas and is also based at Camp Pendleton. HMMT-164 trains Marine Corps pilots how to fly the legionary double main rotor Boeing Vertol helicopter. Knightriders had also been on DFT to NAFEC and was due to return back home to Camp Pendleton on Friday as well. With that said, the Atlas and Knightrider’s commanding officers arranged some logistic embark training. In addition to providing Knightrider’s aircrews with some valuable training, the exercise would give 58 HMLAT-303 Marines an early start on a well-deserved weekend at home.

On Friday, June 27 at 10:30 am, I attended the Knightrider and Atlasflight briefing. There I learned that six CH-46Es would be flying back to

HMLAT-303 Marines onboard a Knightrider Phrog and ready to go home!

Camp Pendleton. Four of these six would be transporting approximately 14 Atlas Marines on each Phrog.

Unfortunately, due to the location of the Knightriders and Atlas ramps and timelines of the launches, I could only cover one of the departures. I opted for the Knightriders launch with Atlas Marines. Sadly I missed the last HMLAT-303 aircraft departing and more importantly a “photo op” with AtlasSergeant Major Serrano and the squadron mascot – Sergeant Angry Bird!

HMLAT-303 Sergeant Major Rocio Serrano poses with Atlas mascot “Sgt Angry Bird” prior to departing El Centro.

With the Knightriders departure scheduled for 1:00pm, at about 12:30pm, I saw 58 Atlas Marines walking from the HMLAT-303 hanger to the Knightrider’s hanger (about a ½ mile walk in 108 degrees). Once at the Knightrider’s hanger, the Atlas Marines formed up into four groups or sticks. Captain Stephan Taute, an Instructor Pilot for HMMT-164, then gave a pre-flight briefing to the Atlas Marines.

At 1:00 pm, HMLAT-303 Marines loaded into four CH-46Es and soon started to taxi out. They would taxi past the Atlas hanger, where Captain John “Hee Haw” McDonnell flying an AH-1W and his “Dash 2” or wingman – Major Kyuwon “Q” Lee flying a UH-1Y would join them. Once on the runway, the rotary wing aircraft departed. Although not seen from Naval Air Facility El Centro, the flight joined up shortly after take off and flew in formation back to Camp Pendleton.


In my second DFT with Atlas, I noticed that the mission of HMLAT-303 hasn’t changed, but some of the Marines had. Gone was Sergeant Heather Ambute (a Marine for 12 years) from Aviation Ordnance. Also gone, but a norm with Atlas were two of the RACS I had interviewed during my last visit in May 2011. First Lieutenants Matt Tiemann and Matt Kangas are now assigned to their first fleet squadron on the East Coast. Each of these Marines had given me their respective stories on being a young Marine Corps helicopter pilot and their respective experiences while assigned to Atlas.

What hadn’t changed was the level of professionalism, hard work, and overall love for what these Atlas Marines do! Once again, the Atlas Marines rose to the occasion, welcomed an outsider and shared their insight with me. Regardless if it was out on the ramp in 115 degree temperatures, or on the CALA moving 70 pound rockets or lifting 200+ pound 20mm ammunition magazines, or in the comfort of the air conditioned Ready Room preparing for a training flight, I didn’t find a single Atlas Marine who wasn’t wiling to stop what they were doing and answer whatever questions I had. I took over 2,000 photos while I was with Atlas on this DFT of which 175 of them made it to the final cut gallery. These photographs can be found at this link: To all the men and women of HMLAT-303, thank you for your support in making this article and photographs possible.

An additional thank you to the Marines of MALS-39 and HMMT-164 Knightriders. MALS-39 and Sergeant Alan Whaley, Corporal Jason Kilmer, and Lance Corporal Alberto Araiza for educating me on the functions of Marine Aviation Logistics and Support. HMMT-164 Knightriders – Lieutenant Colonel Campbell, Major Tyson, and Captain Taute for allowing me on their ramp and allowing me to photograph the Logistics Embark Training that included transporting HMLAT-303 Marines’ on Knightrider’s Phrogs.

I also want to extend a special thanks to several Marines with whom I spent considerable time with during the DFT:

Staff Sergeant Bell, Sergeant Beyl, Corporal Bell, Lance Corporal White, and Lance Corporal Wemhoner for “schooling” me on the many functions and aspects of HMLAT-303 Aviation Ordnance Marines.

Major Lee for his support, insight, and education on not only Atlas, but also Marine Corps aviation. I spent a considerable amount of time with Major Lee during my coverage of their DFT and learned a great deal.

Major Heuer, the squadrons then Executive Officer, who is now in charge of the Crew Chief school (also a responsibility of Atlas). Major Heuer is a long time supporter of Military Aviation Journal and allowed me incredible access during this DFT.

Sergeant Major Serrano for her unique perspective to the squadron, especially on the enlisted Marines.

Lastly, Lieutenant Colonel Morgan (Commanding Officer of HMLAT-303) for sharing his vision of Atlas, giving me great insight on many aspects of Marine Corps rotary wing aviation, and for providing me with sound guidance and advice as a young military aviation journalist.