MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. -- Swarms of helicopters were silhouetted against the dusky sunset Oct. 19 as they filled the skies while performing a non-combatant evacuation operation at various Yuma locales.
In all, 22 aircraft were involved in the operation, landing at Cibola High School, McGraw Elementary School, Kiwanis Park and Auxilliary Airfield Two during the four-hour event.
If the hordes of helicopters flying over Yuma rooftops seemed strange to residents, it is probably because it was the first time a NEO had been performed in the middle of the city, but the Yuma citizens, who thronged to the different landing zones to watch the rare event, should anticipate more NEOs in the future. Because of the success of the first Yuma NEO mission the operations coordinators, instructors with the Weapons and Tactics Instructor course, say they plan on conducting the NEOs in Yuma for each of the semi-annual WTI classes.
Previous NEO evolutions for WTI were held on the southwest outskirts of Phoenix, in order to stay out of Sky Harbor International Airport air traffic lanes, and while the people of Phoenix were supporters of the operation, it made more sense to bring the NEO closer to WTI's home in Yuma.
"We usually go to Phoenix, but the lead time on that was an hour and a half to Phoenix, an hour there, and then an hour and a half back," said Maj. Eric Gillard, CH-46E instructor with Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron-1 and mission coordinator for the NEO. "The students spent more time in the objective (during the Yuma NEO)."
The purpose of the NEO was to give WTI students, and their support elements including infantry Marines from Golf Company, 2nd Batallion, 5th Marine Regiment the opportunity to perform an operation that simulates what they may be called on to do in a real world situation.
The NEO is different from typical operations that Marines perform in combat situations. Whereas normal offensive operations would result in Marines acting with deadly aggression against America's enemies, in a NEO leathernecks must work with the same intensity and vigilance with regard to security as they would in a combat operation, but the safety of the civilian non-combatants is paramount to mission accomplishment.
"The rules of engagement are difficult in urban environments because we're working with the Department of State and other agancies in a real NEO," Gillard added.
In order to provide a more realistic environment, 81 Marines volunteered to act as civilian evacuees for the mission, which was the greatest amount of volunteer support Gillard had seen in his tenure at MAWTS-1. The NEO got an even more authentic touch as Yuma Mayor Larry Nelson volunteered to act as the "Ambassador" for the operation, lending the training exercise a real-life VIP to protect.
"Initially the mayor's comments for city council was that they need to do what ever they could to support the Marines as best as they can," Gillard said.
The planning for the NEO went off without a hitch, according to Gillard, because the Marines received ample support from all the civilian agencies they sought help from.
"We looked at all the zones that we could possibly use within the city to give us that good urban environment, yet still provide somewhat of an easy landing for us," said Gillard, who took the proposal to the city government and school districts after he scouted the locations. "Once we briefed them on the plan and they were comfortable with it they were willing to do just about anything to help us out. I can't say enough about the support we got from the city."
Because of the hospitality from Yuma's civic leaders, the Marines involved were able to get the most out of their training.
"This is a much more real landing zone where we don't have as much control of the site, so there are real-world limitations," said Capt. Miles Hammond, Golf Co., 2/5 company commander. "These Marines are preparing for real world contigencies. They are very confident in performing heliborne operations and providing security, which is the backbone of this mission from a ground standpoint."
The riflemen on the ground echoed their commanding officer's sentiments.
"I'm not sure what to expect because this is my first NEO, but I feel I'm ready," said Pfc. Paul Burchard, squad automatic weapon gunner with Golf Co., 2/5. "It's what we've been training to do."
In addition to providing security, the infantry Marines searched and processed the "evacuees" and escorted them aboard the CH-46E Sea Knight and CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters that flew the "civilians" to safety. The student pilots who are experienced pilots in the post-graduate level WTI course all have at least rudimentary experience with NEO training, but were able to put their skills to the test with more realism, using street maps and navigating over Yuma by looking at street lights and landmarks.
"I think the difference on this is we usually use our training areas to perform NEO training and don't see the 'no-kidding' real world environment that we saw this time," Gillard said. "Really what we want to build here is flight leaders. They can take the training at WTI and go back and lead six or seven CH-46's, for instance, and be able to confidently manage those assets out on the battlefield."
The NEO is just one of four overall helicopter integration assault support tactics evolutions that WTI students perform during the course, but it helps them realize what their roles are in the overall Marine Corps mission.
"Guys roll in here with different experience levels, but really what we give them here is a template to work off of," Gillard said. "They perform all six functions of aviation out here, on a Marine Air Ground Task Force scope, and they see where their piece of the puzzle fits into the big picture to support the overall mission. If they can understand the triggers of a mission, then they can confidently make decisions out there."
Overall the mission was a huge success, according to Gillard, who said that the combination of execution on the part of the Marines and the overwhelming support of the community made the NEO a resounding triumph.
In scouting sites for the NEO, Gillard came up with about 17 locations that were compatible with the needs of the training mission. He said the intent is to only use each site once a year, at the most, so as to not wear out the welcome with the Yuma neighbors.`
With the final exercise for WTI wrapped up Saturday, Yuma residents can anticipate seeing flurries of helicopters in the spring when the Weapons and Tactics Instructor course is once again in session.