Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course (WTI 1-12)
Weapons and Tactics Instructor
In October 2011, Marine Corps Air Station Yuma was once again home for the Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course or as it’s more commonly known as “WTI.” I was fortunate enough to be invited to WTI (class 1-12) and experience the world-class training of Marine Corps aviators first hand. Over the course of several weeks, I would make three trips to MCAS Yuma. During these visits I was fortunate enough to speak with various Marines involved with WTI, including crew chiefs, instructor pilots, and the commanding officer (both incoming and out going) of MAWTS-1
The Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) history can be traced back to the 1950s when the Marine Corps introduced Special Weapons Training Units. In the 1960s, these training units added conventional weapons delivery training to their course syllabus. In the mid to late 1970s, the Marine Corps experimented with different models of aviation weapon and tactics training. Over the course of 7 weeks (3 weeks of academics and 4 weeks of flight phase), WTI basically teaches Marine Corps aviators how to deploy their aircraft weapons systems in a total threat environment. In addition, it involves all aspects of Marine Corps aviation and air assets of various other branches of service.
Pleased with the success of WTI courses, the Marine Corps commissioned Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) in the summer of 1978. The Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One is comprised of the best and brightest in Marine Corps aviation. MAWTS-1 is a unique squadron in that Marine aviators (from all communities) are “asked” to join based upon their interpersonal skills, high level of knowledge, experience, and instructing Marine Corps aviation tactics. This allows MAWTS-1 to be staffed by the cream of the crop of Marine Corps aviation and pass this level of aviation excellence on to the 300 graduates the squadron produces each year. On October 30, 2011, MAWTS-1 graduated 106 Marine aviators of class WTI 1-12.
CH-53 Training Flight – Shooting Air to Air
In order to experience all of WTI, I was authorized to fly on a training exercise on October 14th. In working with MCAS Yuma Public Affairs staff, I was offered the choice of what to fly in – CH-53E Super Stallion or KC-130 Hercules. After some careful deliberations, I choose the CH-53, and with no disrespect to the “Herc Community” it was a choice I was glad I made. First, I was going to be the only photojournalist on board (other than my Public Affairs escort Corporal Aaron Diamant). I figured less photojournalist on board would equate to more flexibility taking photographs while in flight.
At 2:00pm, I learned from Major Jonathan Burgess (exercise safety officer) what our CH-53E’s mission would be. Our Super Stallion would be the lead aircraft in a 7-ship formation of CH-53Es that were tasked with transporting Marine Corps infantry to pre-determine coordinates in the desert to secure a location. Also, while enroute to our destination, we would conduct an air-to-air refueling from a Marine Corps KC-130. We were scheduled to depart at 5:00pm, so I spent the next few hours watching aircrews coming and going in the hanger, getting their respective aircraft ready for tonight’s mission. Also in our hanger were the Marines we would be transporting tonight. Like their fellow air wing Marines, the infantry was just as busy preparing their equipment, reviewing their maps, briefing for tonight’s operation. As I watched these Marines get ready, I remembered what a Marine helicopter pilot once told me, “without our infantry Marines, we wouldn’t have a job!” In what seemed like an eternity, our time finally arrived and Corporal Diamant and I were escorted to our Super Stallion – call sign “Metal 42.“
MAWTS-1 is also a unique squadron in that it has no permanently assigned aircraft. Metal 42 is actually assigned to HMH-466 Wolf Pack stationed at MCAS Miramar. Our flight crew for tonight’s flight was pilot Captain Kelly “Big Red” Allen (CH-53E Division Instructor at MAWTS-1) and WTI student (also known as a Pre- WTI) co-pilot Captain Nese. Metal 42’s crew chiefs were Sergeant Robert Hagstrom, Corporal Josh Badgerow, and Corporal Richard Scherr.
As I made my first steps onto the rear ramp of Metal 42 (grinning ear to ear), I noticed that floor was very slippery. Slippery to the point of having to hold on to something or you were probably going to take a tumble. I was later told that this fluid on the floor was hydraulic fluid and that it was normal to have fluid on the floor. In addition to the slippery floor, I could smell the strong odor of aviation fuel, and noise that made talking, without the aircraft’s intercom system, impossible. I was escorted to my jumpseat (just aft or behind the cockpit) by one of the crew chiefs and secured my camera bag by way of carabiners that I had brought with me. I didn’t want to be “the guy” whose unsecured camera bag flew out over the desert Arizona.
Shorty after we got on board, infantry Marines starting boarding Metal 42. These Marines included, Major Burgess and 11 members of Golf Company – including Golf Company Commander Captain John Zaal and his Weapon’s Platoon Commander – First Lieutenant Sam Long.
Before we started to taxi, Sergeant Hagstrom helped me put on a “gunner’s belt.” Because we would be flying with the rear ramp open and crew chiefs doors open, if you wanted to move around the aircraft while it was in flight, you had to wear a “gunner’s belt” so you (simply said) didn’t fall out of the aircraft. The gunner’s belt is basically a 4-inch heavy-duty nylon belt with an attached 8-foot strap that allows the crew chiefs to walk around the aircraft while it’s in flight. The belt portion is worn your waist and the 8-foot strap portion is attached to various hard points in the aircraft interior. Open ramp, slippery floors – Gunner’s Belt is a great idea!
While I was sitting in my jump seat waiting for us to taxi, I took a look around the aircraft and could help but marvel at the complexity of one of the largest helicopters on the planet. There were wires, tubes, switches, and knobs scattered everywhere. I couldn’t begin to imagine how young Marines fix and maintain these helicopters. From my jumpseat, I could see a portion of the complicated cockpit and I was surprised to see that as large as the CH-53 is, the cockpit appeared small and tight. It is beyond comprehension how Marine Corps pilots remember all that “stuff.”
Suddenly, I felt us moving. We taxied from our spot on the ramp and as we made our way to the runway, I looked out the back and saw our CH-53 flight in trail. It was awesome, although I was now kicking myself for not sticking closer to Corporal Diamant, who had positioned himself on the jump seats next to the ramp! A position, had I not been overwhelmed with my excitement of flying in a CH-53, I should have realized would have been much better for photos.
Once we got to the runway, we took off. I could see our “Dash 2” or wingman out the back of the ramp. Soon we were cruising over the Arizona desert and I asked the crew chiefs, via hand signals, if I could start shooting some pictures through the crew chief doors. I got to the crew chief door and saw one of the aircraft in our flight flying formation off our port (left) wing. I tried my best to maintain my balance as Metal 42 bounced me up and down and side to side. I was also trying to shoot pictures past the crew chief and his door mounted .50-caliber machine gun. There was no way in hell I was going to ask this crew chief to move! I was hoping that with my Nikon D700 shooting 9 frames per second, I would get a few “keepers.”
After shooting from the crew chief’s door, the crew chief helped me move from the forward portion of the aircraft to the ramp. I secured my gunner’s belt and sat “Indian style” on the ramp, with the ramp gunner (our 3rd crew chief) – manning a .50 caliber, in between Corporal Diamant and me. It’s hard to express how exciting this was. In fact for a few minutes, I simply looked around taking in the view of our flight of Super Stallions against a beautiful desert sunset. It reminded me of a modern day version of the helicopter assault scene from the movie Apocalypse Now. Once I started taking pictures, I carefully worked around Corporal Diamant and our ramp gunner. As some point, we went low level yanking and banking approximately 500 feet off the desert floor. I remember looking away from our Dash-2 for a minute and when I looked back at him, I could see he was deploying flares. It happened too fast to get a photo of, but technically speaking, it was “bad ass!” I rapidly took my photos because we were quickly losing our light as the sun set. In was seemed like a blink of an eye (but was more like 30 minutes or so) the light gone so I returned to simply enjoying the view from the ramp of Metal 42.
Weapons Tactics Instructor 1-12 – CH-53E Flight – Helicopter Air to Air Refueling
I knew that our air to air refueling was somewhere in our near future, however I didn’t know exactly when. Having no intercom system, I had no idea where we were in terms of our mission time line. I didn’t want to miss out on what was going to be another incredible Metal 42 experience. The noise inside the CH-53E made verbal communication beyond impossible! So, I resorted to writing notes and handing them to the nearest Marine to me, who happened to be Captain Zaal. What I learned was that we were about an hour from our landing zone (LZ) and about a half an hour from our refueling. I gave Captain Zaal a thumbs up and made my way back to my jump seat.
Somewhere around 6:00 pm, Sergeant Hagstrom waved me forward to cockpit and pointed out to me a KC-130 in the distance. This Hercules would be refueling our flight. Off to our starboard side and forward of us, I could see our Dash 2 moving up to the refueler. I was like a kid in candy store with a level of excitement that is hard to describe. The helicopter air to air refueling (HAAR) our Dash-2 was conducting now, would be us in a few minutes.
The Marine Corps’ KC-130 Hercules is tasked, among other things, with the air to air refueling of tactical aircraft. Marine Corps Hercules are equipped with a Hose Drum Unit (HDU). At first glance, the HDU resembles a large auxiliary fuel tank. However, at the aft end, there is an opening where the hose and drogue extend and retract from. The hose is simply a large heavy-duty fuel line and attached to the end of it is the drogue. The drogue reminds me of a large shuttlecock (used in badminton). Unlike a fixed wing aircraft that have refueling probes that retract and are out of sight until air to air refueling occurs, helicopters that are equipped with refueling probes, are usually fixed (unlike their fixed wing counterparts) and will extend forward during the refueling cycle. Helicopters, such as the CH-53E, require a hose and drogue refueling system. This is because the hose and drogue system is designed to drift under the rotor arc and attach to the helicopters refueling probe. The other type of air to air refueling is the “flying boom” and is used by the United Air Force. To describe the HAAR equipment and process is relatively simple and straightforward. To perform HAAR in low light, at 100 knots, with a hose and drogue you are trying to keep out of your main rotors, requires exceptional airmanship by Marine Corps aviators.
I noticed that the crew chiefs had closed their doors in preparation for our HAAR. I later learned that when the drogue breaks away from the refueling probe, fuel can blow into the cabin – hence closed doors. With the window closed, I had to shoot my photographs through the front cockpit window. The crew chiefs door window was clear Plexiglas, but was scratched and otherwise not the best to shoot photos through. In hindsight, I should have asked one of the crew chiefs to open the door while our Dash-2 was refueling.
So there I stood, standing sideways, on steps, in the 18-inch wide cockpit entrance, shooting our Dash-2 refuel. Not the most comfortable shooting platform, but nowhere in the world could you buy this experience – thank you United States Marine Corps! As I shot my photos, I was able to see the other photographers that had opted to shoot from the KC-130, sitting on the ramp of the Hercules. We were so close, that I could almost, repeat almost, distinguish who was who on the ramp of the Herc!
Approximately 15 minutes later, Dash-2 came off the drogue and rolled off to the right. Now it was our turn! Captain Allen and Captain Nese were now on night vision goggles (NVGs) and the instrument panel (now in NVG mode) was glowing green. The cockpit of the CH-53E is approximately two feet higher than the main cabin floor, where I was now standing. I stood on my “tippy toes” to see past Sergeant Hagstrom, who was now kneeling in between the two pilots, through the cockpit window.
At 100 knots and 3,000 feet, Captain Allen and Nese brought all 50,000 pounds of Metal 42 in behind the KC-130 and slowly moved forward. In front of us, I could see the drogue “getting very large in the window.” Captain Allen and Nese made contact with and the drogue and our refueling process started. During the refueling process, I tapped Sergeant Hagstrom on the shoulder and, by way of hand signals, asked if I could get some shots from the cockpit steps. He was gracious enough to step aside and I moved up the steps. I remained just behind the shoulders of both pilots, my Nikon D700 firing away. After a few minutes our refueling was over and I returned to my jumpseat.
Sitting in my jump seat, I could see the main cabin area was dark. Other than the glow from the instrument panel, you couldn’t see the Marine across from you. So, in the dark and with no means to hear the communications via the ICS, I sat there reflecting on the last few hours. I couldn’t help but think what superior flying skills these two pilots had to make such a complex task of HAAR appear so effortless. I thought it was an excellent example of Marine Corps aviation excellence demonstrated at WTI.
For the next hour or so I sat in my jumpseat, in the dark, with no communications, slippery floors, deafening noise, and the smell of aviation fuel, and loving every minute of it. Before long, we were landing back at MCAS Yuma. I later found out that our mission (which was supposed to be six hours in duration) was scrubbed. Metal 42 was back on the ground by 8:30pm.
Weapons Tactics Instructor 1-12 – VIP Flight
On October 21st, I returned to MCAS Yuma to participate in the WTI VIP flight. The VIP flight was established to express an appreciation and educate local community members, City Council members, and other hometown dignitaries on the importance of the Weapons Tactics Instructor course. WTI isn’t simply a Marine Corps exercise; it is an exercise that involves the entire community of Yuma, Arizona. Long before a WTI and/or Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) exercise occurs, Marine Corps staff is liaising with the community to determine an appropriate NEO site. These exercises require huge community support and without that support, these exercises might not occur.
At 1:30pm, I joined a group of local Yuma VIPs, including several TV media personalities, two members of City government, and fellow aviation photojournalist Ken Kula for a presentation on the WTI – Noncombatant Evacuation Operation exercise. MAWTS-1 UH-1N instructor pilot Captain Karl “R2” Wethe conducted the presentation.
During the 30-minute presentation, Captain Wethe covered all aspects of the Noncombatant Evacuation Operation exercise. Historically, since the Korean War, 16 NEO’s have been conducted. All Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) must participate in a NEO exercise before deploying. Today’s NEO would be a dual-site operation with site one located at Kiwanis Park (Yuma, Arizona) and the other site at Marine Air Ground Combat Center (29 Palms, California). The later location would be utilizing the MV-22 Osprey and the Yuma site would be using traditional rotary wing aircraft, such as the CH-53D, CH-53E, CH-46, and UH-1.
In short, a Noncombatant Evacuation Operation is when the United States government removes military personnel, American citizens, and other designated citizens when their lives are deemed at risk. This risk can be from civil war, armed conflict, or natural disaster. Generally speaking, Marine Corps rotary wing aircraft evacuates these citizens and when the evacuation occurs in a war zone, additional Marine Corps air assets are utilized in order to ensure a safe removal of designated citizens.
After Captain Wethe’s detailed presentation, we were escorted to the CH-53E hanger where we were issued cranials (a combination of helmet and ear protection) and then waited for our aircraft to arrive. Coincidentally, our VIP aircraft was from HMH-466 Wolfpack (the same squadron I did my HAAR a week previously). After a briefing from the crew chief, all eight passengers made their way to the CH-53E. As we got to the ramp, another crew chief was there to make sure we boarded safely and didn’t walk into the 20-foot diameter tail rotor.
Once on board, we quickly grabbed a jump seat and fastened our seat belts. We probably weren’t in our seats 5 minutes when we started to taxi. Our 30-minute flight took us over the city of Yuma and gave the passengers a once of a lifetime experience – a flight in a Marine Corps helicopter.
We took off with the ramp closed, however, once airborne, the crew chief lowered the ramp and allowed the passengers “some ramp time.” Those not on the ramp, had the opportunity to get a view of the cockpit and crew chief’s station. If it’s possible to run around in an airborne Super Stallion like a kid in a candy store, I did it! Crew chief station, cockpit, and ramp, I don’t think I sat in my seat for more than 5 minutes (other than of take-off and landing). My favorite spot was lying on my stomach, gunner’s belt attached, on the ramp. If there was an opposite of being in the nose of a bullet, hanging off the ramp of a Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion is pretty close to it.
Our 30-minute flight passed by in the blink of an eye and we were soon back on the tarmac of MCAS Yuma. Fortunately, my day wasn’t over. As soon as we de-planed our Super Stallion, I hustled back to my car and headed to Kiwanis Park to photograph the Noncombatant Evacuation Operation exercise.
Weapons Tactics Instructor 1-12 – Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO)
Kiwanis Park is the size of several football fields located in the northwest portion of Yuma. The park in surrounded with tall trees and canal that runs along the east side of the park. When I arrived, I could see the Marine Corps security force element had established a perimeter around the park and additional Marine Corps forces were providing over watch on the simulated “noncombatants”, as they would in a real world NEO. The simulated noncombatants were young Marines assigned to MCAS Yuma. I met with Captain Reidinger and Corporal Bopp (MCAS Yuma Public Affairs) who briefed me on where I could and couldn’t photograph during the NEO.
At approximately 4:00pm the first flight of two CH-53E Super Stallions approached overhead. The two Super Stallions landed together causing a windstorm of debris from their rotor wash. In the first wave of aircraft, the helicopters would land, off load Marines, and then depart with each aircraft only remaining on the ground for a few minutes.
In between the first wave and the second wave, the Marines processed the “noncombatants” and prepared them for evacuation. Each noncombatant was given a fictions identity and some of the young Marines had fun by taking full advantage of their role and acted it out to the fullest!
Soon, the second wave of aircraft arrived and began the evacuation process. This evacuation went on well after the sunset, requiring the pilots to fly on night vision goggles. As I looked at the park, unable to see to beyond 40 or 50 yards, I thought what phenomenal piloting skills it required to operate a tactical aircraft in such challenging conditions. Ironically, the last aircraft I saw at the NEO was its last mission at WTI.
The CH-46 Sea Knight (commonly known as a Phrog) has been in service with the Marine Corps in 1964 and has served in every major conflict the Marine Corps has participated in. According to the MAWTS-1 Commanding Officer – Colonel Karsten “Hazel” Heckl (also a Phrog driver) this was the CH-46’s last WTI.
Weapons Tactics Instructor 1-12 – The Interviews with MAWTS-1 Staff
Several weeks after WT1 1-12 concluded, I returned to MCAS Yuma to speak with several key members of MAWTS-1. My first interview was with Colonel Karsten Heckl and MAWTS-1 new Commanding Officer Colonel Bradford “Gila” Gering. In one of the conference rooms of MAWTS-1 and a few hours before the official change of command ceremony for MAWTS-1, I had the honor and privilege to speak with these two Marine Corps officers. The local media conducted the first portion of the interview in which Colonel Heckl was asked to reflect upon his 18-month tour at MAWTS-1.
“MAWTS-1 is an exceptional place with the finest Marines. Every Marine here is literally hand picked to be here. Due to the unique nature of our mission here, all my experiences have been incredible. And this has nothing to do with me; it’s the Marines here that have made these experiences incredible” said Colonel Heckl.
After 18-months at MAWTS-1, Colonel Heckl will “go forward” to Afghanistan for a staff job. When asked if he was looking forward to his new assignment, he responded, “I’m excited! Being an old colonel, going forward with young Marines makes me feel young, makes me feel good, and makes me feel useful.”
One of the interviewers asked Colonel Heckl what advice he had for Colonel Gering to which he quickly replied,” Not a drop! Gila will take MAWTS-1 to the next level.” The interview, then switched to Colonel Gering who said becoming the Commanding Officer of MAWTS-1 is an incredible honor and “I have overwhelming confidence in everyone here”. As an AV-8B Harrier pilot, Gering was assigned to MAWTS-1 as a Harrier instructor pilot in the 1990s and this will be his 4th assignment to MCAS Yuma. When asked about what his objectives and expectations were for his command, Colonel Gering said, “MAWTS-1 mission hasn’t changed in 33 years and is the aviation center of excellence. I expect to uphold that.”
Colonel Gering expected no change in the work tempo of MAWTS-1 due to the drawdowns in overseas deployments. When asked about the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35) Colonel Gering said, “The MAWTS guys are currently working on the introduction of the Joint Strike Fight F-35 into the Marine Corps inventory. We have the best and the brightest minds waiting for the F-35 to arrive.”
MCAS Yuma Public Affairs Officer Captain Reidinger was able to grant me a secondary interview with both colonels after the local media departed. I asked both colonels why a 12-month turnover at MAWTS-1 was necessary as opposed to a one or two month turnover for a traditional fleet squadron or command. Colonel Heckl explained, “Not to take away from a fleet squadron, but MAWTS-1 as a mountain of things it has its fingers into and a few months isn’t enough time to get a new commanding officer up to speed.” Heckl added, “ Other than the constants of WTI (and even those change) MAWTS-1 is continually changing requiring a longer turnover time.”
I asked Colonel Gering if he felt any pressures in taking command of MAWTS-1. He told me, “MAWTS-1 is the crown jewel of aviation and is an institution that isn’t about one man.” Gering referred back to an earlier statement by Colonel Heckl, “I am a steward of the institution.”
We then talked about the uniqueness of MAWTS-1. Colonel Heckl explained to me “There isn’t a question in aviation that cannot be absolutely answered in this building,” and Colonel Heckl cited this example.
“I had been in command at MAWTS-1 for about a month when a staff forward (a staff officer deployed in a combat zone) contacted us stating they were having a problem with a new tactic Al Qaida and the Taliban were employing in Afghanistan. I simply forwarded the request to the appropriate MAWTS guys and within 36 hours we had an answer. Within 5 days the forward units were using the tactics we developed with effective results.”
In addition to being able to diagnosis problems in a combat environment, also within MAWTS-1 is a “think tank” of 12 Marines called the Aviation Development Tactics, and Evaluation department (ADT&E). According to Colonel Gering, the ADT&E group is conducting cutting edge research from everything from communications to aircraft survivability. “This allows us to try out things under the controlled environment of WTI/MATWS-1,” added Colonel Heckl.
Lastly, I asked how the MV-22 Osprey performed during its NEO to 29 Palms. “The MV-22 performed fantastic and has proven itself ‘forward‘ numerous numerous times. If you look at any real world NEO, ‘tyranny of distance’ has always been involved. So, we used the MV-22s long range and they performed beautifully,” said Heckl.
My last interview of the day was with Captain Kelly “Big Red” Allen. Captain Allen was the pilot on my first CH-53E flight. I met Captain Allen in the CH-53E Division of MAWTS-1 and we first talked about his background and then into the CH-53E division of MAWTS-1.
Captain Allen has been flying CH-53Es for 8 years and when he checked into his first fleet squadron, he didn’t even know what WTI was. Five years later in March 2008, Allen found himself at MCAS Yuma and MAWTS-1 as a WTI student. After graduating from WTI, Allen returned to the fleet to share his WTI experience with fellow Super Stallion pilots. Like many WTI graduates, Allen had hoped to be asked to return and join the WTI staff. In 2009 and with 1,200 hours in the CH-53E, Captain Allen was asked to join MAWTS-1. While assigned to MAWTS-1, Captain Allen has traveled to Afghanistan to review tactics with aviators in theater and is the “53” division Air Defense Artillery (ADA) subject matter expert (SME).
I asked Captain Allen how a Marine is selected for MAWTS-1 and he told me, “We keep tabs on students after they have returned to the fleet. No combat experience is required, a Marine aviator simply has to have the right attitude, temperament, good ‘stick’ skills, and be mishap free.” We want individuals that have returned to the fleet and shared their WTI experiences.”
What makes MAWTS-1 unique I asked Captain Allen? “Everyone here is handpicked and you can see that in the staff’s dedication. You ask for something and before you return to your desk, you have it!”
I want to thank Colonel Karsten Heckl, Colonel Bradford Gering, and Captain Kelly Allen for taking time out of their exceptionally busy schedules to speak with me. In addition, I want to thank Captain Karl Wethe for providing me great insight when writing this article. After speaking with these Marines, I can see why MAWTS-1 is unique and special squadron.
Lastly, special thanks to the Public Affairs staff at MCAS Yuma. Over the course of several weeks and having to enduring my phone calls and emails, Captain Staci Reidinger, Corporal Jolene Bopp, and Corporal Aaron Diamant made not only my WTI experience happen, but they secured me opportunities to get the full experience of WTI, including aircraft flights, interviews, and a ring side seat the Noncombatant Evacuation Operation. These Public Affairs Marines are definitely world class and second to none.