VMM-166's CAG-bird sat outside the unit's hangar at MCAS Miramar in April 2015
One of the frontline squadrons at Pendleton is HMLA-369 'Gunfighters'
The F-35 pilots at Yuma have said that the F-35 is relatively easy to fly and a major increase in capability over the legacy aircraft is the aircraft's radar. The biggest situational awareness enhancer in the F-35 is the radar and the way the F-35 presents the radar picture in the cockpit is most impressive. The ease of use is an eye opener though. The AV-8B Harrier has the APG-65 radar, which is very old. The F-35’s helmet mounted display adds to the situational awareness, Hornet pilots may have experience with a JHMCS (Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System) before coming to the F-35, but the ability to have a contact on the radar and then be able to look out the cockpit and have that contact appear on your visor is as different as night and day from Harrier operations.
An AH-1W Cobra slowly moves away from the ramps, with the classic Camp Pendleton backdrop behind it
Seen fitted to the underwing pylon of the KC-130J above is the pod containing the 'Harvest HAWK' kit
The under-wing fuel tank contains the ISR kit, whilst visible on the outer wing pylon is the mount for the AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles
This 'Gunfighters' AH-1W sports a topical Cobra, painted along the length of its fuselage
At rest in front of the Miramar control tower in April 2015
These two CH-53Es display the standard 'Ghost Grey' paint scheme applied to the fleet
The 3rd MAW's primary aviation units are organised into four Marine Air Groups (MAGs), these being MAG-11 and MAG-16 at Miramar, MAG-13 at Yuma and MAG-39 at Camp Pendleton. In addition to these, there is Marine Air Control Group 38 (MACG-38) at Twenty-Nine Palms and Marine Wing Headquarters Squadron 3 (MWHS-3) based at Miramar. The need to maintain the older 'legacy' aircraft within the USMC until transition to more modern platforms is paramount; and so the Corps is currently laying out the final configuration of their AH-1W, FA-18, AV-8B, KC-130T and CH-53E aircraft, which will contain the capabilities needed to support the Marines until the end of the aircrafts respective service lives. By early 2015, 3 MAW had completed the transition to the KC-130J and the MV-22B, whilst the HMLA squadrons had replaced their UH-1Ns with UH-1Ys and the AH-1Z was well on the way to replacing the AH-1W. The F-35 introduction has commenced and the CH-53E to CH-53K transition is due to get underway within the next five years.
“The Marine Corps has long provided the nation with a force adept at rapidly and effectively solving complex security challenges…so much so that 'Send in the Marines' connotes both a demand for action and a presumption of success. The Marine Corps is optimised to be expeditionary – a strategically mobile middleweight force”“The Marine Corps has long provided the nation with a force adept at rapidly and effectively solving complex security challenges…so much so that 'Send in the Marines' connotes both a demand for action and a presumption of success. The Marine Corps is optimised to be expeditionary – a strategically mobile middleweight force”.
Seen above is MWHS-3's Beechcraft UC-12W taxying to its parking spot at Miramar on April 13, 2015
MWHS-3 operates the Beech UC-12F and UC-12W, together with the Cessna UC-35D Citation
The aircraft are used for VIP and light transport duties
The unmistakeable nose of an AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter
The first Short Take-Off/Vertical-Landing (STOVL) Lockheed-Martin F-35B Lightning II (Bureau Number 168717) was delivered to MCAS Yuma on November 16, 2012, with VMFA-121 'Green Knights' transitioning from the FA-18 on the same day. By December 2013 the unit had received its full complement of 17 aircraft. Bringing things up to date, the F-35 pilots at VMFA-121 began training in September 2014 to the standards required for the aircraft's Initial Operational Capability (IOC). In addition to refining pilot skills, there are several hardware standards that must be met for the milestone to be achieved. That configuration entails incorporation of 'Block 2B' software on ten of the squadron's 16 aircraft, as well as any final aircraft modifications mandated by the Joint Program Office (JPO). The IOC (planned for 1st July) requires the ten aircraft to be capable of executing close air support (CAS), limited offensive and defensive counter-air, air interdiction, air support escort, armed reconnaissance and limited suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD). Additionally, the remaining six aircraft need to be capable of executing amphibious carrier operations. Full Operational Capability (FOC) is expected to be in Q4 of 2017, with the full transition to the F-35 planned to be completed in 2032.
The 5th Generation F-35 (or Joint Strike Fighter, JSF) is the chosen strike-weapons system designed to meet an advanced threat and will form the cornerstone of the future USMC multi-mission force, possessing improved flexibility and effectiveness to engage and destroy both air and ground threats. The F-35 was developed using an analysis of 'legacy' aircraft shortfalls, emerging threats and future operating locations, leading to a design that incorporates advanced stealth characteristics and a powerful sensor suite that provides superior awareness to the pilot in all environments, either day or night and in adverse weather conditions. The F-35 can provide sensor data to the MAGTF command and control agencies so as to enable intelligence collection and targeting across the whole force.
"Having graduated in 2011, I joined VMFA(AW)-224 'Bengals' at MCAS Beaufort, North Carolina. Whilst there I did two deployments, one to Guam and one to Japan". Having been selected for a WTI (Weapons & Tactics Instructor) course at MCAS Yuma, he then joined VMFAT-101 in September 2014 as an instructor.
1st Lt. Benjamin Smith, currently undergoing his FA-18 flight training with VMFAT-101 told us about his training with the US Marine Corps to date. "I joined flight school at NAS Pensacola in 2012 where I did my API" (Aviation Pre-flight Instruction). That's pretty much academic stuff". He went on; "I then flew the T-34C at NAS Corpus Christi, which is where you learn to fly. That's mainly familiarisation flights and instruments".Lt Smith then went to NAS Meridian where he flew 130-140 hours on the T-45 Goshawk jet trainer. This is the advanced part of the training and includes more flight and instrument training, before moving on to bombing and low-level combat training. Having gained his wings in May 2014 he then moved to MCAS Miramar and the 'Sharpshooters' flying the FA-18 Hornet, in September of the same year. Lt Smith explained the training with VMFAT-101 in a little more detail; "The training syllabus is broken down into four sections; first is the transition phase, which involves familiarisation, take-offs/landings, navigation and formation flying. Phase two involves the air-to-ground element ,where we learn to drop 500lb practice bombs, although we also have the chance to drop live ordnance, which is done at NAF El Centro. We also get to use the M61 20mm Vulcan cannon on the Hornet. Phase three then sees us move onto the air-to-air training syllabus; and Phase four is when we get the chance to complete our CarQuals (carrier qualification) on a boat. This normally involves one trip, where we get 10 traps and 12 cat shots, although of course they have to be of a certain standard". Asked about when the air-to-air refuelling training is done, he told me that it can be any time after the transition phase has been completed. (cont'd below)
FA-18B Hornet #163115/SH215 is painted to memorialise four different Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, two US Marines and two US Sailors. The four mens names are listed where the pilot and co-pilots names would normally be placed, with the citation of their heroic efforts listed on the intakes of the aircraft. The four men are; Sgt Dakota Meyers USMC, Cpl Jason Dunham USMC, PO2 Michael Moonsor USN (SEAL), and Lt Michael Murphy USN (SEAL).
This Beech T-34C Turbo-mentor is used by VMFAT-101 as an airborne weapons spotting platform
The AV-8B above wear's the light grey camouflage worn by some USMC Harriers
Marine Aircraft Group 39 (MAG-39) is the resident aviation unit at Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton and is composed of the 3rd Marine Air Wing's five 'snake' squadrons operating the Bell AH-1W/Z and Bell UH-1Y helicopters, alongside one current MV-22B Osprey squadron (a further Osprey squadron is planned). The new AH-1Z 'Viper' helicopters are at this time currently re-equipping all of the west coasts Light Attack Helicopter Squadrons (HMLAs) and will eventually replace all of the earlier model AH-1Ws. The current squadrons assigned to MAG-39 are HMLA-169, HMLA-267, HMLA-369, HMLA-469 and HMLAT-303 equipped with the UH-1Y and AH-1W/Z, together with VMM-364 equipped with the MV-22B.
The AV-8B squadrons nominally operate a mix of fourteen AV-8B+ and AV-8B(NA) night-attack variants. The Night-Attack variant is not radar equipped, but is capable of carrying a Northrop-Grumman AAQ-28 LITENING targeting pod, enabling the pilot to exchange information directly with forward air controllers (FACs) on the ground. The first production AV-8B aircraft was delivered to the US Marine Corps in November 1983, with deliveries of the night-attack Harrier II's commencing in September 1989. The U.S Marine Corps received its first Harrier II+ aircraft in July 1993, and its first re-manufactured Harrier II+ in January 1996. The AV-8B was designed with a carbon-fibre super-critical wing, a completely revised and raised cockpit, and advanced aerodynamic devices which enhanced lift capabilities over the original AV-8A Harrier. From the 167th airframe on, USMC AV-8Bs were fitted with a forward-looking infra-red (FLIR), head-down display, a moving colour map and an enhanced head-up display (HUD), all of which make them night-attack capable. The 205th production aircraft, designated the AV-8B Harrier II+, is equipped with the Hughes AN/APG-64 radar, giving it the capability to launch AIM-120B AMRAAM missiles, AIM-9M Sidewinders, AGM-65E Maverick and the AGM-84 Harpoon anti-shipping missile. More recent AV-8 upgrades have provided the Harrier with AN/AAQ-28 LITENING target pods with a video downlink to 'ROVER' ground stations, providing a digital close air support capability, enabling the exchange of information with forward air controllers on the ground.
The TACAIR 2030 'roadmap' will see the AV-8 fleet also transition to the F-35B, with a planned 'out of service date' for the AV-8B of 2025. The first VMA transition (VMA-211) is planned for 2016, with the first all west-coast MEU sourced with the F-35 by 2020. The sequence of AV-8B transition to the F-35 prioritises MAG-13 before the east coast AV-8 units, which have a scheduled 'out of service' date of 2025. In the meantime, the first half of 2015 will see full integration of the Generation 4 LITENING Targeting pod to the AV-8B, as well as the correction of software deficiencies to smart weapon employment and targeting. Aside various minor upgrades to existing weapons systems such as the ALE-47 (v2) countermeasures dispenser, ALR-67 RWR and ALQ-164 ECM pod, the next major upgrade for the aircraft is a full Link-16 network integration into all AV-8B II+ aircraft. Weapons upgrades will see the GBU-54 JDAM gain full integration this year, followed by AIM-120C/D and AIM-9X testing in 2016.
Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton is situated midway between San Diego and Los Angeles, just off California's Interstate 5 (I-5). Such is the vast area of this huge facility, that the helicopter platforms are some seven miles from the main gate! The base employs around 70,000 people including civilian workers and covers an area of 125,000 acres or 506sq/km. Due to the size of the base and the ranges within it, a reasonably large amount of flying by the resident squadrons occurs within the confines of the base itself. It also houses various weapons ranges, utilised by both air and ground forces.
The McDonnell-Douglas (Boeing) FA-18 Hornet is the USMC's primary fixed-wing asset and operates all of the 'Legacy' versions of the aircraft (FA-18A/B/C/D). The FA-18 fleet is expected to continue in service with the USMC until 2029 and until 2030 with the Reserve fleet. Operating with both VMFA and VMFA(AW) squadrons, the 'Marine Fixed Wing Aviation Plan' states that the VMFA squadron's role is to "Support the MAGTF commander by destroying surface targets and enemy aircraft; and escort friendly aircraft, day or night under all weather conditions during expeditionary, joint or combined operations". The VMFA (all weather) squadrons remit differs in that its role is to 'provide supporting arms co-ordination, conduct sensor imagery and destroy surface targets and enemy aircraft day or night, under all weather conditions'.
With the FA-18A having entered service in 1987, the Hornet fleet has undergone numerous upgrades in that time and still provides a very capable platform for the Marines. With a maximum speed of Mach 1.8, the twin General Electric F404-GE-402 powered Hornet is equipped with the APG-65 or APG-73 radar, can carry the AIM-7 Sparrow, AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAM for air-to-air missions; and the AGM-84 Harpoon, AGM-65 Maverick, Mk.82 Dumb Bombs, Paveway LGB and JDAM for air-to-ground missions. It is also equipped with a Link-16 Tactical Data Link, which enbles it to provide a full-motion live video link to a troop commander embarked on an MV-22.
One of the SAR unit's Bell HH-1N 'Hueys' sits at the ready on Yuma's ramp
As mentioned earlier, the sole tanker/transport squadron located at MCAS Miramar with MAW-3 is VMGR-352 'Raiders'. The unit began transitioning to the Lockheed KC-130J from the older KC-130F version of the ubiquitous Hercules back in August 2004, completing conversion to the new type by late 2007. The KC-130J can carry up to 92 ground troops or 64 paratroopers plus equipment. It can also be configured as a MEDEVAC platform capable of carrying 74 litter patients plus attendants. Its aerial refuelling capability allows it to carry up to 12,000 gallons and refuel two aircraft at at rate of 300 gallons per minute. It is capable of refuelling all of the Corps' fixed-wing aircraft, as well as the CH-53 and MV-22. VMGR-352 was the first squadron to employ the 'Harvest HAWK' roll-on/roll-off palletised Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) weapons mission kit. The KC-130J is able to serve as a close air support aircraft and can deliver ground support fire using AGM-114P Hellfire missiles (installed in place of the port refuelling pod), and precision-guided bombs used in conjunction with an AAQ-30 targeting sight. The Hercules Airborne Weapons Kit (Harvest HAWK) can be used in scenarios where precision is not a requisite, such as area denial. With the Harvest HAWK installed the KC-130J provides the MAGTF commander with a platform capable of extended endurance multi-sensor imagery reconnaissance and close air support (CAS) in low threat scenarios. Five of VMGR-352's 12 aircraft are installed with the necessary mission fit and future plans call for the mission kit to receive sensor and fire-control upgrades to address system obsolescence and eliminate deficiencies, whilst sustaining relevancy through transition from P2A Hellfires to P4 Hellfires. The planned Capability III upgrade involves a modular 30mm cannon linked to the fire control, which is expected to be rolled in and mounted in the troop door.
The 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing was first commissioned on November 10, 1942 at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina, with the wing's combat history beginning with deployment of a bomber squadron on December 3, 1943. When the Japanese surrendered at the end of World War II the 3rd MAW was de-commissioned. The Wing was re-activated at MCAS Cherry Point in time for the Korean War in 1950, later moving to Miami. In September 1955 the Wing left MCAS Miami and moved to the west coast for Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in California. The 3rd MAW was rebuilt with the addition of Marine Aircraft Group 15, followed by Marine Aircraft Group 36 in September 1955, with its helicopter squadrons being based at nearby Marine Corps Air Facility Santa Ana, which was later re-named MCAS Tustin.
VMA-214's CAG-bird sits resplendently on the ramp at its home base of MCAS Yuma
Marine Aircraft Group 16 is one of two resident MAGs at MCAS Miramar, situated on the northern outskirts of San Diego. MAG-16 is made up of six medium tilt-rotor VMM units (VMM-161, VMM-163, VMM-165, VMM-166, VMM-268 and VMM-363) operating the Bell-Boeing MV-22B Osprey and four heavy-lift HMH units (HMH-361, HMH-462, HMH-465 and HMH-466) with the Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion.Marine Aircraft Group 16 is one of two resident MAGs at MCAS Miramar, situated on the northern outskirts of San Diego. MAG-16 is made up of six medium tilt-rotor VMM units (VMM-161, VMM-163, VMM-165, VMM-166, VMM-268 and VMM-363) operating the Bell-Boeing MV-22B Osprey and four heavy-lift HMH units (HMH-361, HMH-462, HMH-465 and HMH-466) with the Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion.
HMLA-169 has a long history of operating Bell's AH-1 Cobra
Along with HMA-773, HMA-169 (as it was then) initially operated a small number of ex-US army AH-1Gs,
before converting to the more capable AH-1J. It then flew the AH-1W and finally its current mount, the AH-1Z
A VMFA-121 F-35B departs MCAS Yuma in April 2015
Developed to fulfil an urgent operational requirement in Afghanistan, the Harvest HAWK programme equipped the KC-130J with a roll-on/roll-off dual-screen fire-control console mounted in a removable cargo platform in the aircraft's cargo compartment, with a Lockheed-Martin AN/AAQ-30 Target Sight Sensor mounted under the port-side wing fuel tank, together with a Common Data Link. The weapons fit comprises four AGM-114P Hellfire II laser-guided air-to-surface missiles and MBDA GBU-44/E Viper Strike and Raytheon Griffin A air-to-surface missiles launched from a ramp-mounted 10-round rack and a pressurised dispenser dubbed the 'Derringer Door'. A sideways-firing Mk.44 30 mm cannon has been deferred to a later Block III upgrade. VMGR-352 was the first unit to deploy the Harvest HAWK kit in Afghanistan during October 2010.
The flightline at Camp Pendleton is extremely active, with Vipers, Venoms and Cobras constantly in the air
The eastern end of Miramar's ramps are dominated by the Lockheed KC-130J Hercules of VMGR-352
The unit operates 12 such aircraft, primarily in the aerial refuelling/transport role
Resplendent in the California sun is this clean looking Osprey from VMM-268 'Red Dragons'
The huge rotors of the MV-22 are displayed to good effect
Home-based at Marine Corp Air Station (MCAS) Miramar in San Diego, California, 3 MAW forms part of Marine Force Pacific (MARFORPAC). Tasked with projecting power from the sea, the United States Marine Corp (USMC) combines its air and ground forces to form rapidly deployable Marine Air Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs), capable of operating independently, or as part of a larger combined joint task force. Task forces are formed in three different sizes, the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) with as many as 50,000 personnel assigned, the Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) with 8,000-22,000 personnel and the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) being the smallest, with 1700-2800 personnel. The MEUs are normally deployed on a rotational basis with a US Navy 'Amphibious Ready Group' (ARG), that generally includes a Tarawa-class LHA (Landing Helicopter Assault) or Wasp-class LHD (Landing Helicopter Dock) assault ship, together with a LSD dock landing ship and a LPD amphibious transport dock. 3 MAW is a major subordinate unit of 1 MEF, which incorporates 1 MEB, and three MEUs (11, 13 & 15), together with the 1st Marine Division, which is the expeditionary ground combat force of 1 MEF.
VMFA-121 is the Marine Corps first active squadron to operate the F-35B
VK-04 is seen above during WTI 2-15 at Yuma
A HMLA-369 Venom moves away from the Camp Pendleton ramps for a mission with an AH-1Z Viper
The 'snakes' regularly work in pairs
An AH-1Z and UH-1Y are seen at Camp Pendleton with the Viper crew in situ and about to start engines
We would like to thank the following for assisting is with our visit to 3 Marine Aircraft Wing;
Capt. Melanie Salinas (3 MAW Public Affairs)
1st Lt. Joshua Pena & 1st Lt. Gabriel Adibe (1 MEF Public Affairs)
Sgt. Cody Haas (1 MLG Public Affairs)
Capt. Patrick Daly & 1st Lt. Benjamin Smith (VMFAT-101)
Capt. Christopher Healy & Capt. Charles Jordan (VMM-163)
1st Lt. Jonathan Moss & 1st Lt. Kyle Hayhurst (HMLAT-303)
#168345 illustrates perfectly the Osprey's ability to reduce its cross-section for storage
This is an essential requirement when operating from a ship and space is at a premium
An HMH-462 Super Stallion gets a quick once-over prior to a mission. The squadron is aptly named 'Heavy Haulers'
Of note is the typically grubby rear-end of the helo, caused by the smoke emmitted from the three General Electric T64 engines
VMFAT-101 operates all four versions of 'MacAirs' legacy Hornet. Above is a two-seat FA-18D model
Shortly after we visited the 3rd Marine Air Wing, the unit lost two aircraft in tragic accidents. A Bell UH-1Y from HMLA-469 crashed on 12th May in Nepal whilst operating as part of Joint Task Force 505, providing humanitarian relief to civilians following a devastating earthquake in the country. The crash resulted in the loss of all six Marines and two Nepali service personnel on board. The second loss involved a Bell-Boeing MV-22B from VMM-161, which crashed during a training exercise at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows, Hawaii on 17th May. The Osprey was operating as part of 15 MEU, with the crash resulting in the death of two Marines.
We would like to dedicate this page in honour of those who tragically lost their lives in service for their country; Capt. Christopher Norgren, Capt. Dustin Lukasiewicz, Sgt. Ward Johnson, Sgt. Eric Seaman, Cpl. Sara Medina and LCpl. Jacob Hug (UH-1Y); LCpl. Matthew Determan and LCpl. Joshua Barron (MV-22).
Standard UH-1Y armament, with the M134 7.62mm Mini-gun (left) and GAU-21 .50-calibre machine gun (right),
in conjunction with either the LAU-61 (left) or LAU-68 70mm rocket pods (right)
‘Atlas-The Future of Light Attack’
Helicopter Marine Light-Attack Training Squadron 303 (HMLAT-303) based at MCAS Camp Pendleton, is the largest squadron within the Corps, yet is unique in that in never deploys for combat. However, it takes pride in that it trains all UH-1 and AH-1 crews. Its motto, 'The Future of Light Attack', sums up its mission perfectly and we had the opportunity to sit down with two of its current students undergoing training on the UH-1Y Venom and AH-1Z Viper. 1st Lt Jonathan Moss, a 29-year old California resident who graduated the Naval Academy in May 2011 before going to NAS Pensacola, Florida for his Aviation Pre-flight Indoctrination (API), is currently training on the Bell-Textron AH-1Z Viper. Continuing with his flight training he flew the Beechcraft T-34C Turbo-mentor at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas and the Bell TH-57B/C Sea Ranger at NAS Whiting Field, Florida, before being posted to HMLAT-303 at MCAS Camp Pendleton, very close to his Los Angeles home.
He told us, "As the hub for training HMLA pilots we currently have some 18 AH-1W, six AH-1Z and 16 UH-1Y on strength. We do a lot of 'hot-seat' training where individual aircraft do anything up to eight hours flying per day". That's very evident once you get on the ramps at Pendleton, with helo's constantly buzzing around as they arrive and depart. However, a lot of the flight training is conducted within the confines of Camp Pendleton, not that it restricts the flight operations in any way as the base covers an area of some 200 square miles. With three aircraft types in operation with HMLAT-303, Lt Moss told us, "You get trained on one particular aircraft, due to the sheer information load that's being provided" and being lucky enough to fly the lethal AH-1Z Viper, he clearly loves what he does. "Any day in the sky, whatever you are flying, it's a blast. I don't care who you are, anybody who says they don't like flying is either a liar, or they just don't quite get it".
The Bell-Textron AH-1Z Viper has now taken over from the older AH-1W with all the front-line west-coast based HMLA squadrons
Operating out of MCAS Yuma is the Yuma Search and Rescue (SAR) Unit
The unit provides support for military flight operations within a 100 nautical mile radius of MCAS Yuma
It is responsible for responding to community SAR and MedEvacs on a 24-hour, 7-days a week basis.
(cont'd from above) I asked Capt. Daly to give us a little insight into the training syllabus, "We train student pilots and student WSOs (Weapons Systems Officers) and work quite closely with the Navy. The training syllabus is very similar, but of course they also have the E/F Super Hornet. We cross-fertilise and always have Navy instructors and maintainers in the squadron, whilst we also send personnel to VFA-106 at NAS Oceana". He went on; "We normally have 5-6 classes at any given time, with 5-7 students per class. Of those 30-40 students, everyone is in a different phase of their training. The syllabus lasts between 10 months and one year". I asked him how flying all models of the Hornet was integrated into the students training and whether certain elements were only flown in the more modern C/D models. "For certain syllabus events we don't want them in the 'B' model. Mainly later phases, where doing radar intercepts for example, but for the most part they are put in whatever aircraft is available for the flight schedule that day. They are responsible to know the A through D and the differences in all the systems".
The AH-1ZViper was produced to meet the stringent requirements of the USMC, the design bringing together proven AH-1W airframe reliability, a new composite four bladed rotor system and powerful T700-GE-401 engines. With virtually identical front and rear cockpits, fully integrated weapons, avionics and communications systems the AH-1Z flies with the most advanced aircraft survivability equipment in the world. Target identification is critical in the complex post-cold war and urban conflict environments. The AH-1Z Target Sight System (TSS) incorporates a third-generation FLIR and currently provides the longest range and highest weapons' accuracy possible of any helicopter sight in the world. In addition, the completely passive and automatic system scans the battlefield without emitting trackable radar, positively identifying and tracking multiple targets at ranges beyond the maximum range of its weapons system. As with the UH-1Y, the AH-1Z incorporates the 'Top Owl' Helmet Mounted Sight and Display (HMSD) system. Manufactured by THALES Avionics, the TopOwl HMSD is the most technically advanced helmet available. Upgradeable in-service and as additional requirements develop; it combines both avionics function with the aircrew life support and protection into a single unit. Unlike the AH-1W, the AH-1Z also has identical front and rear cockpits, providing the ability to fly and fight from either cockpit, so there's no need to have separate training programmes for front and back seaters. The Hands on Collective and Stick (HOCAS) side-stick allows pilot function without removing the hands from the flight controls. The Weapons available to the AH-1Z pilot include AGM-114A, B, and C Hellfire, AGM-114F Hellfire, 70mm Rockets, AIM-9 Sidewinder, Mk.77 fire bombs and a 20 mm cannon.
3 MAW is scheduled to be the first wing to complete transition from the AH-1W to the AH-1Z. In order to increase the transition and mitigate delays to the 2 MAW conversion, each active component squadron will receive 13 aircraft instead of the normal 15. Once the initial fielding is completed to every MAG, the squadrons complement will then be 'backfilled' to 15 aircraft so as to bring each squadron up to full strength. 3 MAW is scheduled to complete transition from the AH-1W to the AH-1Z by 2016, with future upgrades the aircraft will have integrated aircraft survivability equipment, degraded visual environment solutions, and an advanced threat, missile and laser warning system. The procurement objective for the AH-1Z is a total of 189 aircraft, of which 152 are new-build airframes. The AH-1Z achieved full rate production (FRP) on November 28, 2010 and initial operational capability on February 24, 2011. First deployment of the AH-1Z occurred in the autumn of 2011 as part of 11 MEU. It was also the first 'all upgrades' detachment in which the AH-1Z and UH-1Y deployed alongside one another, showcasing the advantages of 85% commonality between the two aircraft.
1st Lt. Kyle Hayhurst, flies the Bell-Textron UH-1Y Venom with HMLAT-303 and told us a little more about the training and close co-operation between the UH-1 and AH-1 pilots. Having graduated the Naval Academy in 2010 and undergone his pilot training on the Beech T-6B and TH-57B/C helicopter, he elected to fly the UH-1Y. "Once you arrive you have your own scheduling and information booklets. The squadron (HMLAT-303) trains AH-1W, AH-1Z and UH-1Y pilots, as well as providing refresher training. Generally you fly around 50 hours on type before going to a front-line squadron. This involves around 35-40 syllabus events, equating to around 20-24 actual flights, together with time in the simulator". I asked him about the co-operation between the Venom and Viper pilots, as it is common to see the two types operating as a pair. "The UH-1 is a utility helo, but we learn how to fly together as it is important to cover each other's six. Our job is to support the troops on the ground and operating as a pair allows us to maximise that. As well as carrying equipment, we (the UH-1) may also be putting feet on the ground. The enemy can never get a target on us, as one helo will roll in; deploy their ordnance, then as they roll off the other helo roles in to deploy their ordnance. You never go by yourself; you provide each other with an over-watch position."
The Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion is the largest and heaviest helicopter in the United States military today. The CH-53E Super Stallion first entered service with the Marine Corps in 1981 with the creation of HMH-464 at MCAS New River, North Carolina. Although dimensionally similar to the earlier model CH-53D, the three-engine CH-53E Super Stallion is a far more powerful aircraft than the original twin-engine CH-53D. The CH-53E has a larger main rotor system with a seventh blade and can transport up to 55 troops or 30,000lb (13,610kg) of cargo and can carry external slung loads up to 36,000lb (16,330kg). The helicopter has a cruise speed of 173mph (278km/h) and a range of 621 miles (1,000km). It is fitted with a forward extendable in-flight refuelling probe for tanking from Marines Corps KC-130 Hercules aircraft and it can also hoist-hose re-fuel from a surface ship while in the hover mode. For self-protection it can carry three machine guns; one at the starboard side door, one at the port window, just behind the co-pilot, and one on the tail ramp. It can also be equipped with chaff/flare dispensers for self-protection. Development of a Heavy-Lift Replacement (HLR) for the CH-53E began in 2004 and has resulted in the CH-53K 'King Stallion' being chosen as its successor, an aircraft which incredibly has three times the lifting capacity of the CH-53E. First flight of the CH-53K was anticipated for March 2015, however this has now slipped to around July, with service entry expected in 2018. Current procurement plans are for 200 aircraft, with nine active and one Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS).
The twin-engined FA-18 Hornet has been the mainstay of VMFA squadrons for some 30 years and will continue on late into the next decade
A large proportion of the 'Sharpshooters' Hornets are of the two-seat variety. SH221 above is a FA-18B
'Yankee Papa 00' taxies out for a mission on the afternoon of April 13, 2015
Awaiting a mission during WTI 2-15 is a VMA-214 'Blacksheep' radar-equipped AV-8B+
The Bell-Boeing MV-22 Osprey first joined squadron VMM-263 at MCAS New River, North Carolina on March 3, 2006, with pilots going through their training with VMMT-204. Transition of the west coast CH-46E Sea Knight units began in late 2009. MCAS Miramar's first two VMM squadrons were VMM-161, followed close behind by VMM-166, with VMM-161 receiving their first MV-22B on December 12, 2009. With twice the speed of a helicopter, the Osprey can carry 24 combat troops or up to 20,000 pounds (9,072kg) of internal cargo, or 15,000 pounds (6,804kg) of external cargo and a surface ceiling of 25,000ft (7,620 m). Its cargo bay can alternatively accommodate nine litters with personnel and equipment for medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) duties. The MV-22 Osprey is powered by two Rolls-Royce T406/AE-1107C turbo-shaft engines, each rated at 6,150 shaft horse power (SHP). For ease of transport, the main rotors fold and the wing rotates to minimise the space needed for storage. The Osprey is capable of flying 2,100 miles with one in-flight refuelling, providing the advantage of a vertical and/or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) aircraft that can rapidly self-deploy to any location in the world. Future planned upgrades for the MV-22 fleet will include the V-22 aerial refuelling system (VARS), a traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS), an enhanced weapon system and advanced targeting sensor (ATS) with EO/IR optics, laser target designator and ranging (LTD-R), IR marker and video data link (VDL). A total of 360 Ospreys are on order for the Corps', with plans to equip 18 active, four reserve and one fleet replenishment squadron by 2017. It is planned that 3 MAW will eventually field eight MV-22 squadrons at MCAS Miramar and two at MCAS Camp Pendleton.
The extendable in-flight refuelling probe is visible in the image above
This CH-53E belongs to HMH-361 'Flying Tigers' and is part of MAG-16 at MCAS Miramar
"Some people wonder all their lives if they have made a difference. The Marines don't have that problem"(ex-President Ronald W. Reagan)
Following our successful visit to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) in 2013, Jetwash Aviation Photos decided that a visit to the west coast of the United States to spend some time with the 3rd MAW was long overdue. Very much familiar territory, but a place we had not visited since 2010 and much had changed in Marine Corps aviation since we last visited the wing. Transition from the CH-46E Sea Knight to the MV-22B Osprey and the UH-1N to the UH-1Y has now been completed; introduction of the AH-1Z Viper is ongoing, whilst of course the introduction of the Lockheed-Martin F-35B Lightning II to replace the FA-18 Hornet and AV-8B Harrier II will see the biggest step-up in the Corps strike capability for many years.
A line of Super Stallions await their next mission. Note the mount for the GAU-21 .50 cal machine gun on the rear ramps
We sat down with Capt. Christopher Healy and Capt. Charles Jordan of VMM-163 to discuss the Osprey; Capt. Healy, who has some 350 hours on the MV-22 and recently returned from a seven month deployment aboard the USS Makin Island with 11 MEU told us; "We operated from the Makin Island in support of Operation 'Inherent Resolve' against ISIL rebels in Syria, Operation 'New Dawn' in Iraq and also Operation 'Enduring Freedom'. Asked what type of missions they flew he said; "A lot of logistical support, transporting people and parts to and from other ships and also to Djibouti. We took the bulk of anything that needed to be moved". He went on; "We also provided CASEVAC (Casualty Evacuation) and TRAP (Tactical Recovery of Aircraft & Personnel) stand-by in the Gulf of Aden, up to the North Arabian Gulf." (cont'd below)
#165735 shows the grey colour scheme applied to the KC-130J
The underwing inner fuel tank and outer refuelling pod being the standard fit of USMC KC-130s
During the 1980s the wings squadrons were deployed to Vietnam as combat action in Southeast Asia flared. At the end of the Vietnam War several units were brought back to the United States and de-activated or re-designated, creating 3 MAW as it is today. The wing saw action again as part of 1 MEF, conducting operations in Iraq and Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm where it deployed over 40 squadrons of aircraft and flew over 18,000 sorties while operating throughout the theatre. After the end of hostilities 3 MAW aircraft provided support in Operation Provide Comfort and Operation Southern Watch over Iraq. Once more called into service in Somalia for Operation Restore Hope during 1993, the wing relocated to MCAS Miramar in 1999, where it is still headquartered today.
The end of 2001 saw the beginning of the war on terrorism, and once again 3 MAW deployed several detachments in support of the ongoing Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. In the autumn of 2002, the wing began deploying to Kuwait to prepare for combat operations in Iraq. Ultimately the wing moved 435 aircraft and 15,451 personnel to southwest Asia prior to the attack, marking the first time the entire wing had deployed since the Gulf War and the largest movement of aircraft and people since the Vietnam War. The two primary bases for operations in Kuwait were Ali-Al-Salem Air Base and Ahmed Al-Jaber Air Base, whilst the wing's ground units also established 15 Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) or Forward Arming and Refuelling Points (FARPs) during the march northwards. During the invasion 3 MAW expended over six million pounds of ordnance, including over 2,300 general purpose bombs and 2,200 precision guided munitions.
United States Marine Corps
3rd Marine Aircraft Wing
Three AV-8B Harrier II squadrons are assigned to MAG-13 at Yuma
This VMA-214 aircraft is seen at its home base in April 2015
(cont'd from above) Capt. Jordan, a Tennessee resident who graduated flight school in 2009 and previously flew the CH-46E Sea Knight, transitioning to the MV-22 in 2013, has had the benefit of deploying with 15 MEU and the CH-46 and also with 11 MEU and the MV-22. He is therefore in pole-position to tell us what the Osprey brings to the party and how it differs from the 'Phrog' (as the CH-46 is known colloquially) in real-life operations. "With the range that the MV-22 has, we flew from Djibouti into Kuwait for various missions on a single tank of gas. In the 'Phrog' that just wasn't something you were able to do". We asked him about flying the Osprey and how it compared to the CH-46. "They are two completely different aircraft, with completely different missions" he told us; "I like going places, I like the fact that I wasn't so confined as on my first MEU deployment (with the CH-46) and I can get there a lot faster. The Osprey provides us with a longer range, greater payload and a higher top speed, simple as that. The 'Phrog' was a good reliable aircraft, but the Osprey just takes it to another level".
Asked about flying the Osprey, Capt. Healy explained; "Having completed ground school, students go to VMMT-204 at MCAS New River, North Carolina to actually fly the aircraft. The unique thing about the MV-22 is that you need to know how to fly a helo'. We all start out as fixed-wing pilots and trimming a fixed-wing aircraft is vastly different to trimming a helo; and the majority of our pilots are ex fixed-wing. The transition and on-route part of the mission is a fixed-wing skill and so comes relatively easily, whereas the landing part is a helicopter skill and that's what needs to be mastered."
The 'Raiders' CAG-bird basks in the glorious California sun on VMGR-352's ramp at MCAS Miramar
This brand new MV-22B Osprey is seen at MCAS Camp Pendleton and does not yet bear the markings of its squadron, VMM-364 'Purple Foxes'
The Purple Foxes had just transitioned to the Osprey, having flown out its last CH-46E Sea Knight the week before this photo was taken in April 2015
Head-on shot of a MAG-16 Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion as it taxies back to its parking spot at Miramar
By far the largest squadron at Miramar is VMFAT-101 'Sharpshooters'. As the Hornet FRS with the motto 'Fighter Attack Starts Here', the Sharpshooters operate all versions of the FA-18 in service with the Marine Corps. The unit has around 40-50 aircraft on strength at any given time, with 10-15 available for service on a day to day basis. With the F-35 not scheduled to arrive at Miramar until 2023, the legacy Hornet will continue to take up ramp space for many years to come. Capt. Patrick Daly gave us an insight into what it takes to be an instructor with VMFAT-101.
The second resident Marine Aircraft Group unit at MCAS Miramar is MAG-11. This unit comprises the Boeing FA-18 Hornet squadrons that are assigned to MAW-3 and is made up of VMFAT-101 (the Fleet Replacement Squadron, or FRS), which operates all versions of the FA-18; VMFA(AW)-225 operating the FA-18D version; VMFA-232 and VMFA-323 with the FA-18C and finally VMFA-314 which operates the FA-18A++. In addition to these units, MAG-11 also incorporates the single west coast Lockheed KC-130J Hercules squadron in the shape VMGR-352. The FA-18 fleet is scheduled to eventually transition to the F-35 Lightning II, with a planned 'sunset' for the Hornet fleet of 2029 for the active-duty component and 2030 for the reserve units. In total the USMC currently has eleven active FA-18 squadrons and one reserve squadron, of which three of the active squadrons are integrated into US Navy Carrier Air Wings (CVWs). Future upgrades for the FA-18 fleet will see the Raytheon ALR-67 (v3) Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) added in 2016, along with the ALQ-214 (v5) Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) suite. Aside from various cockpit upgrades, the AIM-120D Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) will also be introduced in 2015, together with the AIM-9X Sidewinder short-range missile some time in 2017.
HMLAT-303 'Atlas' is by far the busiest squadron at Camp Pendleton
The unit train's aviators for both the east and west coast squadrons on the AH-1W, AH-1Z and UH-1Y
A UH-1Y Venom lifts off on a training mission at Camp Pendleton on April 13, 2015
Seen at MCAS Yuma, Arizona is this VMM-166 'Sea Elks' Osprey
VMM-166 was the first unit to convert from the CH-46E to the MV-22B back in late 2009
#162523 of HMH-462 on the Miramar ramps in April 2015
Unlike the majority of CH-53s, this one is remarkably clean
This single-seat FA-18C Hornet gets some attention from a 'groundie' on VMFAT-101's platform at Miramar
The Bell UH-1Y Venom is the latest in the line of the most widely produced helicopters in the western world today. The UH-1Y can be distinguished from earlier models of the UH-1 by its four blade main rotor, whilst sharp eyed observers will also notice that the forward fuselage is about two feet longer than its predecessor. Other changes are a stronger airframe, improved manoeuvrability and hardened fuselage components providing greater protection to its crew and passengers. More powerful engines in the UH-1Y provide greater speed, and additional payload capacity, whilst new avionics include a 'glass' cockpit, forward looking infra-red imaging systems, and electronic counter measure abilities. There are also new, larger fuel tanks which can withstand greater impacts. Along with all of the improvements of the new helicopter comes more reliability. The UH-1Y incorporates a series of sensors to provide its crew with the latest maintenance detection available and major components of the helicopter can be more easily reached through access hatches and doors, allowing easier and faster maintenance when necessary. FLIR Systems 'BRITE STAR' is used on the nose of the aircraft for targeting and Forward Looking Infrared images that are displayed on selected multi-function displays (MFD) inside the cockpit. The 'Top Owl' Helmet Mounted Sight and Display (HMSD) system supports improved communication and reduced cockpit workload. Manufactured by THALES Avionics, Top Owl is the most technically advanced helmet available. Upgradeable in-service and as additional requirements develop; it combines both avionics function with the aircrew life support and protection into a single unit. A total of 160 UH-1Ys are on order with over 100 having been delivered by the end of 2014.
Despite the major improvements the MV-22 offers over its CH-46 predecessor, the Osprey also requires far more maintenance to keep it in the air
This 'White Knights' tilt-rotor gets some minor attention outside the squadron's hangar
This 'Blacksheep' AV-8B+ weaves its way back to its parking spot at MCAS Yuma after an anti-air warfare mission over the Yuma Training Area
With Miramar's control tower in the background, this Hornet awaits it crew on the morning of April 13, 2015
The 'Sharpshooters' ramp is undoubtedly the busiest at Miramar, with numerous FA-18s scattered around
Marine Aircraft Group 13 is based at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona. The main hub of activity here is provided by the USMC's McDonnell-Douglas AV-8B Harriers of VMA-211, VMA-214 and VMA-311. The AV-8Bs primary mission is to provide offensive air support, armed reconnaissance, and air defence for Marine Expeditionary Forces. Also in residence at Yuma is VMFA-121 'Green Knights' with the new Lockheed-Martin F-35B Lightning II. The Green Knights transferred to Yuma from MCAS Miramar, where it had previously flown the FA-18C Hornet, taking delivery of its first F-35 on November 16, 2012. At the time of writing, the unit currently has 16 aircraft on strength and is expected to achieve Initial Operational Capability (IOC) with the F-35 in July this year.
The USMC plans to acquire both the F-35B and F-35C and will replace its current FA-18, AV-8B and EA-6B fleets with the Lightning II. With a planned procurement of 353 F-35Bs and 67 F-35Cs, basing plans as of 2015 for the 3rd MAW will see MCAS Miramar house five 10-aircraft squadrons and one 10-aircraft reserve squadron, whilst MCAS Yuma will be home to four 6-aircraft squadrons and the Operational Test & Evaluation squadron with six aircraft. The remaining aircraft on order for the Corps will be based with the east coast units with 2 MAW and in Japan.