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Range maintainers provide targets for WTI course pilots

By Lance Cpl. Aaron Diamant | | October 7, 2010

An integral part of the Weapons and Tactics Instructor course involves pilots dropping ordnance on physical targets.

With only so many abandoned vehicles available from local wrecking yards and Cold War-era tanks on the range becoming increasingly riddled with bullet holes and bomb-blast impacts, a team of Range Maintenance personnel traverse the remote areas of the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range in California, inspecting and repairing steel targets on the various ranges within the complex prior to WTI courses.

More than 300 realistic targets are built from wood or sheets of steel to resemble buildings, tanks, trucks, surface-to-air threats and radar vans.

The newer steel targets are designed to be more durable, environmentally friendly and have proven more cost effective than the “real targets” scattered throughout the many acres of range, said John Gordon, Yuma range future plans officer.

The three-dimensional steel replicas are the answer to sustaining the station’s training ranges into the future. They give range managers the ability to continually provide a steady amount of targets without having to completely replace them. In addition, the numerous wooden targets, built by the station’s Range Maintenance Marines, provide for any deficit of the newer steel structures.

“When a 2,000-lbs. bomb hits a target, or even near it for that matter, it completely destroys it,” said Gordon. “These targets are designed and engineered so that only the welds will break and all we have to do is weld them back together, saving the government millions of dollars.”

TRAX Test Services, a contractor, performs inspection, assessment and fabrication services, as well as subsequent repairs of the steel targets on the ranges. Yuma’s Range Maintenance Marines work in tandem with TRAX regarding the separate responsibility of providing the wooden targets.

“We’re out here to check up on these targets and make sure they are holding up well,” said Billy Kennedy, TRAX Test Services crew supervisor. “We make any repairs that are necessary prior to the start of WTI.”

Through the efforts of station Range Maintenance and TRAX, the remote areas of California’s high desert have been transformed into a robust aviation training complex, which is in high demand in order for aviators to fulfill demanding training requirements, said Gordon.

One of these ranges, Range 2507 North also known as Al Brutus village, is made of wooden house facades and populated by two-dimensional insurgent replicas toting AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Additionally, the complex offers vehicle-mounted machine guns representative of a common threats. Since the initial construction of Al Brutus village in August 2009, the complex has received enhancements during each subsequent range closure, said Gordon.

The range is named in memory of Maj. Cesar “Brutes” Freitas, a Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron Search and Rescue helicopter pilot killed in a crash in August 2007.

“It’s a constant battle between closing the range for sustainment and enhancement and the influx of scheduling operational training requirements,” said Gordon. “We have limited time, personnel, and money. However, we still have to provide an ample amount of targets to train our warfighters. This is where our Range Maintenance Marines & TRAX crew come in. They are the glue that provides the fleet targets when there is a deficit.”

The ground around the complex is littered with bullet casings and pieces of bombs, both high explosive and inert practice rounds and, in some cases, the remains of live ordnance.

To maintain a safe working environment, the repair teams are escorted by explosive ordnance disposal technicians, who must first inspect the work areas for unexploded ordnance and assure safe entry for the target teams.

“It is a crucial part of the equation,” said Gordon. “Without the EOD teams ‘blazing the trail,’ there can be no targets for training.”

All maintenance operations are coordinated through the station’s Range Maintenance section and involve personnel from contractors as well as the station’s Base Services Division, Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1, Marine Wing Support Squadron 371, Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron and any other unit needed to accomplish the mission.

“The most important thing is the positive relationships formed in the field,” said Gordon. “That’s the formula for mission success. I can manage, plan and coordinate the project and even design the ranges. However, the success is entirely the product of the hard work, professionalism and ingenuity of the individuals during the execution phase. It is due to the efforts of these Marines and professionals that continue to make MCAS Yuma the premier aviation training venue in the Marine Corps.”

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