In April and May of 2013, Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron – One (MAWTS-1) hosted its bi-annual Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course (WTI) at Marine Corps Station Yuma. For 6-weeks, seasoned Marine Corps aircrews work at a wartime tempo in the deserts of Yuma, Arizona. During this 6-week course, Marine Corps aircrews refining their skills and gain experience from world-class instructors in the finest air combat tactics course on the planet.
UH-1Y (Yankee) Air Ground Refinement and Close Air Support
On April 3rd, I linked up with the Huey group at WTI (call sign “Deuce”). We briefed with other members of Deuce flight for our mission. Our mission consisted of a two ship flight(two UH-1Ys) in two phases. Phase One was an Air Ground Refinement (AGR) training mission. The purpose of the ARG is to familiarize crew chiefs with deploying their weapon systems and understanding limitations of various gun platforms used on the UH-1Y. Phase Two was a Close Air Support (CAS) training mission. The purpose of CAS is to provide support by way of dedicated aircraft (such as the UH-1Y) against hostile ground targets. In between phases, we would refuel and rearm at a Forward Area Refueling Point (FARP).
The crew of “Deuce 21” would be WTI Instructor Major Ryan “Puddles” Thompson, WTI student Captain Jason “Cortez” Caster (HMLA-369 Gunfighters), WTI Instructor Staff Sergeant Matt Burgett, and WTI students Sergeant Nick Otey (HMLA-367 Scarface) and Corporal Andrew Harris (HMLA-369 Gunfighters).
Deuce 21 departed the MCAS Yuma southern CALA (combat arming and loading area) at approximately 1230 hours minus our wingman (known as “dash 2”). On start up, our dash 2 had mechanical issues and was unable to launch. As it ended up, we would be a single ship for both phases of our training flight. After launching, we flew directly to our AGR live fire range. Our live fire range was a several acre area with shipping cargo containers serving as structures.
Once we arrived overhead at the range, Major Thompson oriented Captain Caster to the range and Staff Sergeant Burgett did the same with Sergeant Otey and Corporal Harris. Regardless on if an aircrew is deploying 2.75-inch rockets, .50 caliber machine gun, and/or 7.62 minigun, the coordination and the situational awareness required by the aircrew is incredible. A missed placed rocket round or a misidentified target could mean the difference between life of death for Marines or non-combatants on the ground.
After making several orientation orbits, Deuce 21 rolled in hot! First with rockets, then Corporal Harris on the GAU-21 (.50 caliber) and then Sergeant Otey on the GAU-17 (7.62 minigun). On each pass, the aircrew would refine their skills on their specific weapon system.
During the AGR, Deuce 21 never flew straight and level with Puddles and Cortez redefining the term “yanking and banking.” Throughout Phase One, Staff Sergeant Burgett, moved from one side of the Yankee to another providing instruction and leadership to his crew chief students.
Once Deuce 21 was “winchester” (out of ammunition), we headed for our FARP for rearming and refueling. We spent approximately 60 minutes refueling, taking on more ordnance, and crew debrief.
Departing the FARP with a full bag of gas and ordnance, the crew of Deuce 21 headed towards our CAS range. Adding to our CAS mission, was simulated Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) and additional CAS aircraft (F/A-18 Hornets). Once onscene and “fights on,” the next hour of CAS was a blur! Puddles and Cortez yanked and banked Deuce 21beyond description! Rockets, fifty cals, and minguns, all in sync! Not a moment of straight and level flight. As a photojournalist, I almost gave up on taking photos from the back because of the extreme flight profiles being experience. I took my life into my own hands when I was trying to get Puddles and Cortez’srocket shots through the front windscreen. With that said, I couldn’t help being impressed and in awe by the ability of the aircrew to get their rounds on target and being calm, cool, and collected on the radio.
CH-53Es – Artillery Heavy Lift Mission
On April 5th, the WTI CH-53Es Super Stallions (known as Heavy Metal) was tasked with transporting a group of Marines and 2 M777 155 Howitzers from a staging zone to forward area. The mission involved 5 CH-53Es (2 for sling loading and 3 for transporting Marines. We boarded our CH-53E (call sign “Metal 47”) and departed MCAS Yuma with our dash 2 at 10:45 am. After a 20-minute flight, we landed and the photographers and Public Affairs Marines deplaned.
External sling load operations are complex and require considerable air and ground crew coordination. Coordination that requires hovering a 50,000+ pound helicopter over Marines that are trying to secure the external load to the CH-53E. First, the Super Stallion conducting the lift pilot actually personally inspects the external load. An improperly secured external load could be catastrophic for the aircrew. Once inspected, the pilot returns to the aircraft. The Super Stallion is then brought to a 50-foot hover. This hover creates the desert version of a maelstrom. Once over the external load, Marines on the ground attach either a single or two point sling that is attached to hard points on aircraft. The pilots then pull power and slowly take up the slack in the external load straps and depart.
Taking photographs of the external load operations was a challenge due to the dust and small rock being blown everywhere by the rotor wash created by the three engine 13,140 shp (shaft horse power) Super Stallion. At one point, my lens got so caked with dust I couldn’t see out of the viewfinder! It was awesome and wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world!
After almost 3 hours, we departed our staging area and flew to a near by FARP, received a quick bag of gas, and then returned to MCAS Yuma.
20 miles from MCAS Yuma is a training site called “Yodaville”. Built in 1999 and named after the Marine Corps officer that came up with the concept of a close air support training area- Major Floyd “Yoda” Usry. Officially Yodaville is called the “Urban Target Complex” (UTC). The UTC provides realistic urban combat air support (CAS) to not only WTI students, but also other branches of service that want to hone their CAS skillsets. Not only does Yodaville provide CAS training, it also allows for infantry Marines to train on everything from providing cover fire to forward air controlling (FAC).
When we arrived, we were required to wear body armor and ballistic helmets. Properly outfitted, we were able to stand with the Marines conducting the FAC for todays training evolutions. Standing several football fields away from Yodaville, I could see it was built with shipping containers (much like the range “Deuce 21” used) but on a much larger scale.
I later spoke with Corporal Andrew Harris (HMLA-369 Gunfighters) after he graduated from WTI and asked him about his experiences training in Yodaville during WTI.“Yodaville is interesting because not only are you doing urban CAS, but that during day/night missions we had friendlies 300 meters from the city. What I took away is
instructing a student to be able to use “talk ons” to the crew to reaffirm everyone in the crew is looking at the same targeting. Being able to convey to a student that missing 15 meters away in the middle of the desert is no big deal, but in an urban environment a 15 meter miss could have huge ramifications to include collateral damage and civilian casualties (CIVCAS).”
During my experiences at Yodaville, I was able to see first hand the complexities of close air support. Before ordnance is deployed, there are checks and confirmations and then re-checks and re-confirmations to ensure the correct target is being designated. Once an aircraft is “cleared in hot,” that aircraft could face a wide variety of anti aircraft threats on ingress and egress.
Draft 83 – AV-8B Harrier and MV-22 Osprey Air to Air Refueling
The United States Marine Corps has been conducting air to air refueling for decades. The primary air-to-air refueling platform in the Marine Corp inventory is the Lockheed KC-130 Hercules (either T of J models). The Marine Corps’ KC-130 Hercules is tasked, among other things, with the air-to-air refueling of tactical aircraft. Marine Corps Herculesare equipped with a Hose Drum Unit (HDU). At first glance, the HDU resembles a large auxiliary fuel tank. However, at the aft end, there is an opening where the hose and drogue extend and retract from. The hose is simply a large heavy-duty fuel line and attached to the end of it is the drogue. The drogue reminds me of a large shuttlecock. Unlike a fixed wing aircraft that have refueling probes that retract and are out of sight until air to air refueling occurs, helicopters that are equipped with refueling probes, are usually fixed (unlike their fixed wing counterparts) and will extend forward during the refueling cycle. Today’s air-to-air refueling evolution will occur at speeds of 210-240 knots and demands extraordinary flying abilities by all Marine Corps aviators involved.
On April 19th, I joined the crew of “Draft 83” flying the newest Hercules variant KC-130J at MCAS Yuma for an air to air refueling mission. We were scheduled to refuel MV-22s Ospreys and AV-8Bs Harriers who were both participating in a WTI training exercise.
Draft 83 was crewed by WTI Instructor Captain Mike “Bluto” Blejski, WTI student Captain Slade “Slingblade” Ermis, and Loadmasters Corporal Christian Garza, Corporal Jesse Redmond, and Corporal Ryan Blackshear.
About 45 minutes after take off, Marine Corps Public Affairs Lance Corporal Uriel Avendano and I donned our loadmaster harnesses and waited. These harnesses would allow us to be out on the ramp to photograph the Ospreys and Harriers, yet still be secured to the KC-130J. Fifteen minutes later our first “customers” arrived and the ramp dropped. As I have mentioned in articles before, when the ramp first drops on the Hercules and the sunlight pierces the cargo area, you though you have died and gone to Marine Corps Air Wing heaven.
As I got positioned on the ramp, I could see the both the starboard and port side hose and drogue units were unreeled and two MV-22s (call sign Rampage 31 and Rampage 32) slowly approaching. MV-22s are impressive with their tilt rotor design and the capabilities of both fixed and rotor wing aircraft. However, when they are in “airplane mode” with their huge prop arc facing forward, cruising at 210 knots and less than 100 feet from you they are beyond “badass!” About 10 minutes into Rampage flight’s refueling, a pair of AV-8Bs (call sign Razor 52 and Razor 53) arrived on station. As I watched both aircraft refuel, I realized I was watching Marine Corps history.
On my left was one of the oldest aircraft in the Marine Corps inventory – the AV-8B Harrier. An aircraft that was as revolutionary when it was introduced in the 1980s as the Osprey is now. The Harrier was revolutionary due to its ability to land and take off vertically, yet retain the speed and capabilities of a fixed wing attack aircraft. On my right was one of the newest aircraft in the inventory – the MV-22 Osprey. The Osprey brings a whole new capability to the Marine Corps. The ability to land and take off like a helicopter, yet transition to propeller driven fixed wing once airborne. This allows for the Osprey to fly farther and faster than traditional rotary wing aircraft.
In the course of 30 minutes the crew of Draft 83 transferred a total 12,000 pounds fuel to 4 MV-22s and 15,900 pounds of fuel to 2 AV-8Bs.
A very special thanks to the MCAS Yuma Public Affairs staff. During WTI 2-13, Captain Staci Reidinger, Corporal William Waterstreet, Lance Corporal Reba James, and Lance Corporal Uriel Avendano went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure I got the most from my WTI experience. As I have said before, these Public Affairs Marines are definitely world class and second to none. Lastly, an additional special thanks to the aircrews of Deuce 21, Metal 47, and Draft 83, for providing me with yet again, phenomenal WTI experiences.
On a side note, this was Captain Staci Reidinger last WTI. After 20 years in the United States Marine Corps she retired. I want to wish her Godspeed in retirement and a sincere appreciation for her support of MilitaryAviationJournal.com.
To view additional photos and videos from my Deuce 21, Metal 47, and Draft 83 experiences, please go to the MilitaryAviationJournal.com Photo Gallery (http://militaryaviationjournal.com/photo-galley) or MilitaryAviationJournal.com Video Gallery (http://militaryaviationjournal.com/video-gallery)