YUMA, Ariz. --
At this moment there is a lone aircraft landing dock in the middle of the Arizona desert, baking in the searing 120-degree heat and surrounded by nothing but sand. This tarmac, at odds with its surroundings, is a simulated slab of tactical air wing engineering. Its existence is central to the Marine Corps’ Field Carrier Landing Practice, the necessary qualification for a pilot to land on a ship.
Today, Marine Corps Air Station Yuma’s Auxiliary Landing Field Two or “AUX-II”, served as the staging ground for pre-deployment ship-based vertical landing certification for the AV-8B harrier pilots within Marine Air Group 13. The dock resembles the flight deck of a Navy amphibious assault ship, providing somewhat realistic training for the pilots without the added complexity of a ship’s rolling and pitching at sea.
Nestled about 30 minutes out of Canon Air Defense Complex, the landing pad resembles and is operated the way it would be aboard a ship. The landing field, which includes a fully functioning communications tower system simulates the sight picture, lighting package, HPI (Hover Position Indicator) and precise dimensions the pilots can expect to encounter, without the added complexity of a ship’s rolling and pitching at sea.
“Before pilots can go to the ship, they have to do eight landings out here during the day and eight at night, if they want to be night qualified,” said Maj. Garrett Ebey, VMA-214 detachment officer-in-charge of the AV-8B harriers for the squadron’s upcoming 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit deployment. The landings are an annual requirement. “Since we’re headed to the ship soon, we’re out here refreshing our skills.”
Historically speaking, added Ebey, vertical landing mishap rates on amphibious assault ships are six to seven times higher when at sea. Hence, Yuma-based Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 Marines invest long hours and manual labor in the maintenance and operation of the field carrier imitation dock.
“This landing pad absolutely serves a great purpose,” said Ebey. “It is the cornerstone of getting a pilot ready to go, for just the basic skill sets of being able to land and take off with a harrier for contingency operations from a forward deployed boat or LHD (landing helicopter dock) amphibious deck aircraft carrier.”
Responsibility for maintaining the serviceability of the airfield falls on MWSS-371. Everything from ensuring the safety of AM-2 (aluminum matting, second generation) pads, repainting threshold and edge line markings, and following assault ship guidelines for training pilots to up keeping communications systems goes into keeping the site’s capabilities up to par. The Marines’ efforts on the tarmac are an essential part of mission accomplishment.
“We also make sure the 15-kilowatt lights on the taxiways, main runways and the flush deck work for night time operations,” said Cpl. Chase Stacey, an MWSS-371 expeditionary airfields specialist and a native of Walker, La. “We have certain [maintenance steps] we have to do each month. Checking the safety wires, the stakes, the edge clamps, any voids – which is when the matt bounces, we lift it up and fill it in to make it even again.”
The unyielding locale also serves as a learning experience for the enlisted Marines on deck. It functions as a small training exercise that affords even the most junior Marine a hands-on tutorial on how to go about business in an austere environment.
“We do come out here a lot; it’s pretty regular. It helps us get comfortable with the whole MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit] set up,” said Pfc. Ashley M. Oehler, an MWSS-371 bulk fuel specialist and a native of Batavia, NY. “I’ve only been out here three times, but 371’s been out here at least six times since I got here about three months ago.”
AV-8B Harrier pilots coordinate their flights and landing maneuvers with the on-site radio tower in order to successfully complete their vertical landings on the simulated dock.
“The birds coordinate with the LSO (Landing Safety Officer) in the tower on whether they’re too high, too low, too far left or too far right, things like that,” said Sgt. Justin Woods, a MWSS-371 bulk fuel specialist, mission commander, range safety officer and a native of Spartanburg, SC. “All of that goes through the tower.”
The communications infrastructure depends on the desert-conditioned, hardworking Marines on the ground – a reality that doesn’t go unappreciated by the Marines flying above the desert skies.
“Those 371 Marines do a great job with what they have out there in that austere environment,” said Capt. Mark Maholchich, a VMA-214 harrier pilot and a native of Kennesaw, Ga. “They’re always able to provide us with everything we need.”
Marines working together to help train the finest expeditionary force known to humankind is what it’s all about. For their part, the Marines of MWSS-371 and VMA-214 are a testament to what Corps readiness is capable of both at home and abroad.