Marine Corps Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) and their Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) course prepares Marine Corps aviators how to “fly and fight” their aircraft and work with other air assets in a total threat environment. In addition, WTI involves all aspects of Marine Corps aviation and air assets of various other branches of service. WTI curriculum includes preparing KC-130 aircrews to survive in air threats in enemy territory, establishing Forward Area Refueling Points (FARPS), and testing the capabilities of MV-22s during Aviation Delivered Ground Refueling (ADGR).
KC-130J Hercules– Defensive Tactics Exercise
On October 8th, I met the crew of Draft 81 on the southern Combat Arming and Loading Area (CALA) of MCAS Yuma. At the CALA, I was briefed on the specifics of the “Def Tac” exercise and what the flight would entail my MAWTS-1 KC-130J Hercules Instructor Pilot Captain Clarke “Metro” Groefsema. The two-hour flight would simulate the Hercules using defensive tactics to evade enemy fighters. Our simulated enemy fighters would be F-5 Tigers from VMFT-401 Snipers based at MCAS Yuma.
The exercise was divided into two evolutions. The first evolution would be a single aggressor aircraft verses our “Herk” and the second would be a “2 v 1” or two aggressor aircraft verses our aircraft. Each evolution would test the skills of the pilot to evade the enemy fighters by way of terrain masking and maneuvering the 100,000-pound Hercules only a 1,000 feet over the deserts of Yuma.
With that said, I was told that during the training evolutions the would be doing “some serious yanking and banking!” I was also told no fewer than 20 times, that I would get airsick. So, I stuck two airsick bags in my cargo pants pockets and made my way to Draft 81.
Draft 81 was a KC-130J Hercules from VMGR-152 “Sumos” based at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinama, Japan. The KC-130J is the latest version of the combat proven transport that the Marine Corps has had in it’s inventory since 1962. The Marine Corps is in the process of replacing existing KC-130F and T models, with the “J” variant. First accepted by VMGR-352 “Raiders” in September 2004, the “J” incorporates a huge leap technology advancement. Technology that improves operational effectiveness, increase aircraft flight performance, and decreases manpower demands. All these advancements make latest model of the legendary Lockheed Martin aircraft a force multiplier.
In short, these improvements allow the KC-130J to be more maneuverable and land and take off on shorter runways, deliver more fuel, faster air and ground refueling, and have the capability to deploy Hellfire missiles by way of the “Harvest Hawk” weapon system.
After my walk through the southern Combat Arming and Loading Area (CALA), the crew got me squared away in the cockpit. I was lucky enough to score a position on the bench seat just aft of the cockpit. Shortly after getting seated, we were taxiing to the runway and were soon airborne. After flying for approximately 30 minutes, we arrived in the air space where the “Def Tac” exercise would be taking place.
For the next 15 minutes in five different scenario evolutions, the pilots of Draft 81 literally threw the Hercules around the sky like it was a fighter, a fraction of it’s size and weight. While “Skippy” flew the Herk, Metro was craning his neck it attempts to catch a glimpse of the enemy fighter trying to “kill us.” Hard right turns followed by equally hard left turns resulted in two plus “G’s” being pulled. I noticed that the increased “G” forces made my five-pound D700 now feel noticeably heavier. These turns were not quite on the wing tips of the KC-130J, but damn close to it.
After the air to air engagement, I was ushered back to the ramp where Crewmaster Staff Sergeant Daniel Pye (VMGR-252) and Loadmaster Lance Corporal Noah Heacox (VMGR-152) got me suited up in a loadmaster harness. This harness is basically a nylon vest with heavy-duty clasps that prevents the wearer from falling out of the aircraft! Attached to it is a ten-foot tether that attaches to various hard points around the aircraft. Once secured, the crew dropped the ramp and when it opened and the sunlight hits you, you would have thought you were in heaven (or at least the Marine Corps Air Wing version of it!). As my eyes adjusted, I could see a lone multi colored grey F-5 with a big red star on the tail several hundred feet off our right side. The F-5, then moved in close to the rear of Draft 81 in order for me to get some “up close and personal” photographs of the VMFT-401 aircraft. I know I only had a few minutes maximum for the ramp photo opportunity that Captain Groefsema graciously arranged for me. With that said, I shot almost 300 frames before the ramp closed. As the ramp closed and I doffed my harness, one of the crewmembers motioned for me to get back to the cockpit area. I hustled back to the flight deck to find our F-5 off the port side. The Sniperheld formation there while I took another burst of photos from various points around the cockpit. After a few minutes, the F-5 pulled away and returned to MCAS Yuma.
The second “Def Tac” exercise happened 30-45 minutes later. From my perspective there wasn’t an obvious difference between the single ship evolution and the two ship. Multiple hard “G” turns, yanking and banking, and pushing the Herk to its performance limits was the norm. Once the air-to-air engagements concluded, I once again made my way back to the ramp, donned my loadmaster vest, and waited for the crew to lower the ramp. As the ramp lowered, instead of a lone F-5 Tiger, there were two Tigersin close formation. One F-5 was sporting a brown and green camouflage (similar to USAF Vietnam era fighter paint schemes) and the other a blue and grey camouflage. Wasting no time, I fired off another 300 photographs in less than five minutes.
On our way back to MCAS Yuma, I was in awe of the maneuverability and agility of the KC-130J I had just witnessed. I was equally in awe of the airmanship demonstrated by the crew of Draft 81 and it left no doubt in my mind that had this been a “real world” combat mission Draft 81 would have survived.
MV-22 Osprey – Forward Area Refueling Point “AUX-6”
Forward Area Refueling Points (FARPs) are basically portable gas stations placed in strategic locations as close to the front lines of a combat operation as possible. This gives Marine Corps aircraft a shorter refuel/rearm time and gets them back overhead supporting Marines on the ground faster. Although FARPs are not a new concept and have been used by the military for decades, a relatively new manner in which FARPs are operated called Aviation Delivered Ground Refueling (ADGR) is being used.
Aviation Delivered Ground Refueling is simply Marine Corps heavy left air assets (KC-130, MV-22, and CH-53E) outfitted with internal fuel tanks and equipment to transfer fuel to combat aircraft such as AH-1 Cobras and UH-1 Hueys. A benefit to ADGR is that these “fuel source aircraft” can fly and land anywhere and set up a FARP in less than an hour. Another benefit is that to one degree or another these fuel resource aircraft can leave a FARP, air to air refuel with a tanker off station, and then return to the FARP ready to refuel again.
A relatively new capability for the MV-22 Osprey is ADGR. I was able to see the ADGR in action at the FARP called “AUX-6.” I flew to AUX-6 in the back of an MV-22 (call sign “Rampage 32”) along with four crewmembers and several large fuel bladders. Staff Sergeant Mike Aguilar, a MAWTS-1 MV-22 Crew Chief instructor, set me up with a load master harness and I was again lucky enough to secure a position on the open ramp from MCAS Yuma to AUX-6. There’s nothing like a birds eye view of the deserts of Arizona compliments of MAWTS-1!
We arrived at AUX-6 as a package of three MV-22s. Already onscene was a KC-130T ready to begin refueling operations. It was now 5:40 pm and I had only about 30 minutes of light left. So I moved around the FARP with a purpose, watching and photographing aircrew members setting up a Forward Area Refueling Point for the better part of ten rotary wing aircraft.
Tonight AUX-6 would be refueling AH-1W Cobra and the Marine Corps newest version of the Cobra, the AH-1Z. 45 minutes after we landed, the first AH-1W was inbound to AUX-6. Over the course of three hours, AUX-6 aircraft refueled six AH-1W/Z Cobras. As fast as aircrews set up the FARP, it was broken down, the refueling equipment was disassembled, and re-packed on the Osprey.
Once all my light was gone, I secured my photography equipment and simply observed the operational complexities of AUX-6. Refueling aircraft in close proximity to other aircraft is difficult enough, now add the limits and dangers refueling at night brings. Although each aircraft is operating with Night Vision Goggles (NVG) and the Landing Zones are NVG equipped, I was amazed at the precision in which these aircraft could operate in such confined areas with limited visibility. The best example I could use as a comparison would be to drive down your street, looking through only a toilet paper roll with only your parking lights on. Then try to park your car in a single car garage. And do this while someone is shooting at you!
KC-130T – Forward Area Refueling Point “Sandhill”
I was fortunate enough to fly to another FARP a few days later onboard a KC-130T (call sign “Draft 83”). The “T” mode is an earlier model of the KC-130 and does not have the technological advancements the “J” model has. This KC-130T was from VMGR-452 “Yankees” stationed at Stewart Air National Guard Base, New York. We flew from MCAS Yuma to 29 Palms and FARP Sandhill. It was a 60-minute flight that ended in some incredible yanking and banking that were equal to the maneuvers I experienced during my “Def Tac” flight. When we landed, the Hercules stopped in what felt like the length of a football field. KC-130 aircrews never cease to amaze me with how they can fly these transport aircraft like a F/A-18 Hornet!
As I started to exit the Herkvia the crew entry door on the port side of the aircraft, one of the crewmembers reminded me “sir, turn right as you exit the aircraft!” A great “pro-tip” because a few feet to my left as walked down the stairs was the number two engine turning as flight idle.”
I discovered that during FARP operations, a KC-130 may or may not keep it’s engines running depending on it’s environment. If the FARP is in a safe location (i.e. like an airport) it will generally shut down the engines. If however, they are in an unfriendly environment, the engines remain running throughout the FARP evolution. This ensures a quick egress in the event of air and/or ground attack.
I exited the KC-130T somewhere around 5:00 pm and by 5:15 pm the first UH-1Y Yankee arrived. Our first Yankee was from HMLA-169 “Vipers” based at Camp Pendleton, California. Unlike FARP AUX-6, FARP Sandhill was a single KC-130T task with refueling Yankee model Hueys by way of two refueling points. Over the course of almost four hours, we would refuel six Yankeesand transfer almost 15,000 pounds of fuel.
Soon, we were back in the cargo bay of Draft 83 and taxiing for take off. Our take off was just as exciting as our final approach and landing to FARP Sandhill. As I looked out the windows, I saw nothing but blackness and the roar of the four engines at full power. Honestly, with all the noise, vibration, and not being able to see anything but blackness outside the window, I thought we were taking off! I was suddenly brought back to reality when the brakes were released and we jumped forward and were nose up and airborne with what felt like a few seconds. The remaining part of the 60-minute flight back to MCAS Yuma was uneventful and I soon back at the CALA and on my way home.
Thanks to the continued support of MCAS Yuma Public Affairs (Captain Staci Reidinger, Corporal Aaron Diamont, and Corporal Sean Dennison) and MAWTS-1 (Major Brett McGregor and Captain Clarke Groefsema), I was able to see WTI from a different perspective. A perspective that allowed me to start understanding the logistical complexities of Marine Corps aviation operating in a combat environment. Lastly, an additional thanks to the aircrews of Draft 81, Draft 83, and Rampage 32 for providing me with some incredible WTI experiences..
To view additional photos taken during “Def Tac” and at FARPs AUX-6 and Sandhill, please go to the photo galley.