MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. -- It started out rather pleasantly at first. Marines from Marine Air Control Squadron 1 loaded some gear they would need and made the long drive to Stoval, just outside of Dateland, Ariz., ready to prepare a field-expedient airfield for the field-testing of the new KC-130J.
Only six Marines went out. One team leader, an assistant, two air traffic controllers, a navigation aide technician and a communications technician. Together, they formed a Marine Air Traffic Control Mobile Team.
"The MMT goes out in combat to do different runway setups for different situations," said Cpl. Matthew Wayne Tannehill, assistant team leader for the exercise. "We can set these up for C-130s or helicopters, depending on the need."
MMT Marines can be sent in to an area they will be setting up by helicopter drops or over land, he said. They can set up runways or Forward Arming and Refueling Points for helicopters going out on long missions. The MMT should be self-maintained for at least 72 hours, explained Tannehill.
"I love this," said Tannehill. "I've worked with Staff Sgt. (Erik) Steele (the team leader) before and enjoyed it, so I asked him to let me know when the next MMT was going. He called me up for this and I cleared it with my crew chief. My past experiences working with him is what made me the assistant team leader."
As the Marines arrived, they took a quick survey of the gravel road that would be used as the runway, checking it for large rocks or potholes. Once they were sure there was nothing dangerous for the planes that would be coming in, they began to set up a 60 foot-wide by 3,500 foot-long runway.
Team leader Staff Sgt. Erik Steele determined the wind direction and speed, which he used to figure out which direction the runway would go. The Marines set to work putting daytime marking panels up at the approach end of the field while a pace runner and a reference runner began running down the field. The reference runner counted paces to mark panels at the 100-foot mark and each 500-foot mark until reaching 3,500 feet.
"Reference is a tough job," said Steele. "It's hard to run 3,500 feet at a good pace while keeping count and checking the runway for rocks, holes and other objects that may have been missed and need to be removed later."
Orange panels were used at the start and end of the runway to alert incoming pilots. Cherise (pink) panels lined both sides of the runway in between the start and end point at 100 feet and every 500 feet afterward. The setup was called an Aircraft Marking Pattern-1, one of three different setups that can be used to mark a runway.
Rescue crews and vehicles showed up in case of an emergency during the exercise, and now all the Marines had to do was wait for the planes to arrive.
And then it happened; the wind picked up and shifted, causing the Marines to hurriedly switch panels around, basically changing it into a different runway.
Steele got on the radio and called up the pilots, informing them of the new wind speed, heading and approach. A "bird" was soon spotted, and the new version of the KC-130 began coming in for touch-and-go landings.
Watching the planes come in makes the job worthwhile, said Cpl. Michael Trejo, air traffic controller.
"It's an awesome job," he said. "Doing this, I get to see a lot of aircraft up close."
He enjoys the job so much, that he came in on a day off to participate as a member of the MMT.
"I volunteered to come in and do this," said Trejo. "I've been to Combined Arms Exercise, I wanted to learn how to do this. Next I would like the chance to go to a Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course."
For more than an hour the planes practiced the touch-and-goes, testing the ability of the plane to handle conditions of heat and less than-ideal-landing areas. Steele directed the planes throughout the exercise, giving the pilots their positions when landing on the runway and telling them when it was safe to come down or when to spend more time up in the air to allow the Marines on the ground to fix panels blown away by the wind.
Dust blown by the wind stung the Marines and the Navy observers.
As the aircraft came into contact with the ground, the back-blast of blown dirt covered anyone not under cover or in a vehicle. Stoically, the Marines continued their tasks until the exercise was completed.
But it's "all good," according to Tannehill. The most fun part of the job is being close to the planes as they do their touch-and-goes.