Forty Eight Hours at Yuma’s WTI
Whoever wrote those song lyrics “it never rains in southern California” had it wrong (trivia answer below)… I fought rain for the first hour and a half of a three hour drive from San Diego CA to Yuma, AZ. Why was I there? I’d heard that the Marines’ Weapons and Tactics Instructor’s course (WTI for short) offered some great photo opportunities of Marine aviation units, including an exciting helicopter landing exercise in downtown Yuma. I planned a two-day trip to see just what Marine Corps aviation looks like today, and to watch some of its skilled professionals in action. An uncharacteristic October storm brought flooding rain and thunderstorms to parts of the Southwest; luckily Yuma was spared these hazards while I was there. I reached the city at 11PM on Wednesday, greeted by an almost full moon.
Thursday morning, I joined Scott and Alice, two photographer friends from Connecticut who had attended multiple WTI events in the past. We drove cross-town to the Yuma County fairgrounds, next to the sprawling Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, and parked our cars to await the daily procession of aircraft departures and arrivals. Home to four AV-8B Harrier squadrons and the Marine’s only adversary F-5N squadron , MCAS Yuma also hosts the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron-1 (MAWTS-1). In very basic terms, MAWTS-1’s job is to standardize and provide training for the operation of the Corp’s aviation assets. It hosts a pair of WTIs each year; each course includes weeks of classroom work, followed by a shorter flying program. Between the tenant units and aircraft brought in for the flying portion of the WTI, close to 100 Marine aircraft shared Yuma’s ramp – fighters, helicopters and tanker/transports. There’s a civilian side of MCAS Yuma too, serving private and air carrier operators and other U.S. Government entities. The Marine-operated airport gets very busy from time to time.
The first day featured a quiet morning, and an action-packed afternoon with plenty of photo opportunities. K/C-130 Hercules transports provide aerial tanker support during the WTI, and numerous sorties were flown well into darkness. We could hear, and occasionally see some of the refueling operation which took place high overhead the airport. Around 6PM, the sun set and we rapidly lost our photographic light. We didn’t leave right away though as the multiple F/A-18s and F-5s departed in afterburner, treated us to a fantastic light show. The droning of the air refueling continued too; the visibility was fine and we could see the position lights of a pair of KC-130 tankers and a four-ship of F-18s flying together in the night sky. Through binoculars one could see their luminescent green formation lights too! Later that evening, after dinner and looking at the day’s photos, I turned in around 11PM… 24 hours down.
Day two began with a side trip west to NAF El Centro airport, to see what was flying there. We figured that it’d be another slow morning with a busier afternoon at MCAS Yuma, and we guessed correctly. After spending three hours driving to and from El Centro, we arrived back at the fairgrounds parking lot to watch the afternoon’s flying. One Harrier developed a minor problem, and we saw him circle the field at around six thousand feet high (we had an air band scanner) dumping fuel in a long gray ribbon not unlike a contrail. The fuel evaporated within a minute, and he landed safely soon thereafter.
We left the fairgrounds around 4PM and drove to Yuma’s Kiwanis park, located in the residential west side of the city. There, we met the team of Marine Public Affairs personnel that showed us where we’d observe the helicopter flight operations. The park contained a large, well manicured turf the size of three football fields next to each other, ringed by tall trees and then a chain link fence. A few Marines in uniform and a few spectators milled about outside the fence. We were granted access to the fenced-in area, and move about the trees to watch the event. We were truly “embedded”, as Marines in full combat gear set up radios around us and other teams made the field ready for the rotary-winged arrivals. This exercise was part of the WTI syllabus, containing a training scenario that dealt with the evacuation of an American Embassy in a foreign country where civil unrest had broken out. Some MAWTS-1 personnel posed as the civilians; it was the Marines’ job to arrive by helicopter, sort out the 35 or so “Americans” and provide initial care and security for them until they could be air evacuated.
About an hour before sunset, the sight and sound of a pair of UH-1 reconnaissance helicopters overhead announced the beginning of the mission. Soon, a pair of CH-53 helicopters came into view, heading straight at us from behind the trees. They slowed to a hover, and descended into a maelstrom of cut grass and dust that flew up to greet them, caused by their rotor downwash. Immediately, I could understand how much of a hazard a desert “brownout” could be. Before the dust and grass settled, the helicopters had disgorged troops that ran towards us; some began to set up a field command post while others fanned out and began to guard the perimeter of the field. About 3 to 4 minutes passed, and the pair of helos thundered into the air, creating another storm of dirt and debris. Within a few moments, another pair of aircraft arrived and dropped off more troops. For the next hour, a dozen flights transitioned to and from the field. I was amazed that aircraft so large could be moved so precisely so as to avoid the odd tree branch and obstacle, while fighting the airborne dust and debris.
The sun had set, and still more flights came and went. Some of the local populous had arrived to see the action soon after the first few helos thundered over the city at 500 feet; hundreds of people watched the air show. Amidst the rumble and roar of a pair of departing CH-53s, an ice cream truck’s music lent a carnival-like atmosphere to the park. Local police teamed with soldiers to control vehicular traffic and spectators in a well-thought-out plan. A full moon rose huge on the horizon, and occasionally a helicopter would approach just right to be silhouetted in front of the light. Operating in the dark, with camouflaged personnel moving about, the helicopter crews performed flawlessly, landing in a rather confined space with lots of dust and hazards close by. The training mission was very impressive to watch, especially from our positions so close to the action.
Too soon, it was time to leave the park and return to my hotel to rinse off the dust from the helicopters’ downwash and pack for my drive back to San Diego. After a short nap, I jumped into my car at 2AM and left to catch my early morning flight. Excluding the 3 hours at El Centro, I spent 48 hours in Yuma, steeped in Marine Corps aviation. Although the WTI is for Marines to learn about their aviation capabilities, I learned a lot from watching them train too.
(By the way, the answer to the trivia question was Albert Hammond – the Eagles covered his song a bit later!)
Photos and article by:
Thanks to Captain Staci Reidinger and the rest of the Marine Public Affairs team that assisted us!