Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) Yuma2011
Yuma Arizona’s main airport is a joint-use facility that’s home to a busy Marine Corps base and an interesting mix of civilian operators. In fact, the Marines say that MCAS Yuma (on the south side of the main runways) is their busiest flying base, in part due to excellent training airspace and air-to-ground ranges nearby. Yuma International Airport encompasses the north side of the airport, containing general aviation hangars, an air carrier terminal served by multiple daily airline flights, and a new FBO. During my two-day trip to Yuma in April 2011, I hoped to gather information for an upcoming article about a Marine aviator, and to photograph the aircraft of the Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) course. I got a few unexpected bonuses while taking pictures, and as I found out, you never know what’ll be flying around Yuma…
Twice a year, the locally-based Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) operates a WTI course, which collects several dozen additional aircraft from around the country to add to those based at the air station. Multiple AV-8 Harrier, F/A-18 Hornet, F-5N Tiger II and KC-130 Hercules missions occur daily as the training reaches a crescendo during the last month of the course. Helicopter operations increase too, as UH-1 Huey, AH-1 Cobra, CH-46 Sea Knight and CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters fly both day and night. Recently fielded V-22 Osprey tiltrotors have also been added into the WTI curriculum.
Yuma receives a smattering of transient military aircraft throughout the week, as it’s situated between southern California and Texas, a pair of states with many bases and aircraft. Civilian aircraft range from regional jets and turboprops operated by scheduled airlines, to corporate jets and flight training aircraft. (Southwest 812’s recent diversion to Yuma after a roof panel failed provided a surprise visitor to the airport too).
Throughout the mornings of my trip, Harriers, Tigers, and an occasional Hornet and Herc departed and returned an hour or two later. Being able to photograph any special color-schemed jet is an eagerly-sought bonus on a trip like this. One of the more colorful Hornets airborne during this WTI was the CAG bird from VFA-94, the Mighty Shrikes, resplendent in orange and black. The Harriers had a few non-standard paint schemes among them too, including a colorfully-finished jet from VMA-513, the Nightmares. Another bonus was the inclusion of the “Frankenprowler” in the exercise – a legendary EA-6B that was built with parts from three different airframes (one was damaged in a flying accident, the two others were development aircraft that were stored after their programs ended).
Sometimes the unplanned and unexpected events during a trip make the hassles of coast-to-coast air travel all worth the while. Unknown to me, participating within the WTI were a pair of Hawker Hunter Mk.58A jets operated by the Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC). The classic 1950’s British-designed jets are still useful as adversaries in exercises like the WTI, and the two jets were sporting eye-catching two-tone gloss gray camouflage paint. What a bonus! Another huge surprise was the appearance of a pair of Boeing 787 Dreamliners and a solo Boeing 747-8F freighter at Yuma. The three brand new transports flew almost continuously for the two days I was there, departing the airport for a few hours and returning to park on the civilian side of the airport on a newly-completed taxiway. A triple bonus!
Finally, during the Friday evening non-combatant evacuation exercise, helicopters flew in and out of the local Kiwanis park from just before sunset through darkness. It was a great opportunity to witness Marine Corps aviation up close, and there was yet another surprise in the air too. During the daylight portion of the flying, a highly modified Cessna O-2A Skymaster, in Navy markings, orbited over the park. It was flying proof that a Skymaster can fly on only it’s rear engine, as the front power plant was removed and replaced with a fairing that housed a FLIR (at least). Most likely it was being operated as a surrogate unmanned air vehicle during the proceedings. Another bonus aircraft to photograph!
Looking back, during the two days while I was in Yuma I accomplished my goals of interviewing the Marine aviator and taking photos of some of the aircraft that took part in the WTI course. Beyond that, I got more than I bargained for, as I photographed colorful fighter jets, a pair of rare Hawker Hunters, three new Boeing jumbo jets, and an odd single-engined Cessna Skymaster. For me the photographer, there were lots of surprises flying around Yuma!