WTI 15-1

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As the sun rises over the Sonoran desert to the east, the U.S. Marines at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, are already at work, getting their aircraft ready for another day of the WTI’s.

It’s that time of the year again for the twice a year, Weapons and Tactics Instructors Course. Some military experts have compared this school for Marines as the equivalent of the U.S. Air Forces Weapons school, or the U.S. Navy’s Top Gun school. It is also the only training of its kind, providing pilots, weapon system operators, ground combat and combat support service personnel a world-class opportunity to hone their battlefield knowledge and expertise. Other service members and foreign allied military services may also attend the school.

Held two times each year, the Marines bring both officers and enlisted personnel from all over the Air Wing component of the Marine Corps, to train them together with various weapon systems & missions, so that after the two months of the schooling, these Marines can go back to their own units, and spread the knowledge among their other Marines. Only the top 10 percent of Marines, those who are the best in their military specialties, ever get to attend the WTI training, which roughly equates to at least one Marine from every Marine aviation unit.

The course consists of part classroom instruction combined with a rigorous flight curriculum. It is intended to build communication between pilots and the troops on the ground, so they will work together smoothly and efficiently.

During the training, students are taught about a variety of weapons and how they are used, tactics and how best to utilize them together with other Marine aviation units, as well as command and control systems.

Besides the Air Wing personnel, units from the Marines ground forces are also brought in to help with the training. The U.S. Marines are best known for their use of the Air/Ground team, where their air assets support the ground troops, and this WTI training reinforces that reputation. Some of those ground units included in this WTI, were the 1st Battalion/ 7th Marines (Infantry), and the 1st Battalion/11th Marines (Artillery).

Missions are held either at the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range in Arizona, or in the Chocolate Mountains of the California’s Colorado desert. Occasionally urban combat missions can take place in El Centro and/or Brawley, California, and then the final mission occurs in Yuma, Arizona, where the civilian general public are invited to come and watch each year. While the exercises are held in the Spring and Fall, temperatures can still range up into the 100’s, and at times monsoonal rains or wicked dust storms, can affect the missions and the troops. The desert can be a unforgiving mistress.

I have had the opportunity over the last several years to fly with the Marines on their various aircraft and to participate on their various missions. Being a former Marine Infantryman, I was use to flying in the CH-43 “Sea Knight”, the CH-53 “Super Stallion”, and the KC-130 “Hercules”, but always in a transport mode. Since my participation in the WTI’s, I’ve flown in the UH-1Y “Venom” for ground support roles, the CH-53E for troop transport and hauling the M777 howitzer , and the KC-130J for air to air refueling. During the WTI’s, I get to see the other side of the Marine Corps, and see how the Air Wing prepares for each mission, from briefings, to the carrying out of said mission. where they are performing any variety of real-world missions during the training. These missions will include transporting troops and equipment, raids, providing close-air support, evacuating non-combatants and performing humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery efforts.

The course consists of part classroom instruction combined with a rigorous flight curriculum. It is intended to build communication between pilots and the troops on the ground, so they will work together smoothly and efficiently.

During the training, students are taught about a variety of weapons and how they are used, tactics and how best to utilize them together with other Marine aviation units, as well as command and control systems.

In this particular WTI 15-1 , I first flew with on a KC-130J on a refueling mission. it was a beautiful morning with thick billowy clouds everywhere, unlike my last refueling mission from WTI 14-2, we had to cancel that mission due to fierce dust storms, so I was keeping my fingers crossed. we headed up and to the west, crossing the Colorado River, which separates Arizona and California. Soon, we were circling over the southern half of the Salton Sea, a large inland sea just north of El Centro and Brawley, California.

I had been told to expect two AV-8B Harriers to come in and refuel. The Marine loadmaster then informed me, that they were cancelled, and we would wait to see if anything else did show up.

After a few minutes, I suddenly saw this dark speck come zipping out a cloud behind us by a few miles, and within seconds it was on us. It was a F/A-18C “Hornet” from Marine squadron VMFA 323, the “Death Rattlers” (a.k.a – the Snakes), and the plane was being flown by Major Andrew Zetts, his call sign is “Foam”. He slid in behind us, giving me plenty of time to photograph and video his flight. The KC-130’s refueling hoses were already out and the Major maneuvered his aircraft’s nose to just under the refueling boom, until his siphon connected with the boom. We stayed connected for several minutes while the refueling took place, and then suddenly the Major’s Hornet was full and he disconnected and pulled away to our starboard side. It was then only a short flight back to MCAS.

That night, I watched a very large lightning storm with high winds come through Yuma and the surrounding desert, and the next day, it started even earlier than the first. It looked like it could rain at any second, and the high winds were still with us, but the mission would go on.

I was taken to the CH-53’s hangar, and could see approximately 10 CH-53’s warming up for the mission. Our mission was going to entail the following. We were partaking in a raid, where the CH-53’s would fly into the Chocolate Mountains of California, head to a certain Landing Zone (LZ), where the mission’s briefing would take place, the brief took over an hour long as instructors and students went over every aspect of the mission, the terrain, and the weather. Then the CH-53’s were to be loaded with Marines from the 1st Btn/11th Marines, after securing all of the Marines onboard, the CH-53’s lifted off and hovered over the M777 howitzers and picked up by harness and carry the 11th Marines’ and their artillery pieces to another LZ. the howitzers were offloaded, and then the troops, where they then would setup their guns and fire on a target, that the Infantry (2/7) were attacking. The CH-53’s then left and went to continue on another part of the mission and to refuel.

The mission went perfectly, as the artillerymen set up their guns, and then fired 30 rounds at the enemy target destroying it. Then the CH-53’s returned to the LZ, and loaded the troops once more, and the howitzers, and returned them back to the original LZ. Mission Accomplished! Another successful WTI in the books.

I want to thank the 3rd Marine Air Wing, MCAS Yuma, AZ, the pilots and crews who make me feel more than welcome, and especially the Public Affairs Office, that helped make this story possible.

 

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Douglas Aguillard

Douglas (Doug) Aguillard is a Freelance Photojournalist who specializes in the Military & Aviation fields. Based in San Diego, CA, he is a Marine veteran., He currently is a photojournalist for the Military Press Newspaper, the Historical / Archival Dept. photographer for the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum at MCAS Miramar, and a very proud member of Photo Recon, and has been published in various magazines and books such as "Combat Aircraft Monthly" magazine, "Vertical " magazine, "Wings of Gold" magazine, Sikorsky Frontlines newsletter, and the San Diego Air & Space Museum's Book: "Celebrating the San Diego Air & Space Museum: A History of the Museum and it's collections".

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