RIMPAC 16: Scarface squadron CO says Hawaiian range provides training like no other

26 Jul 2016 | Cpl. Natalie Dillon 1st Marine Aircraft Wing

POHAKULOA TRAINING AREA, Hawaii – In a training area where the base elevation is more than 6,000 feet above sea level, the pilots of Marine Light Attack Squadron 367 begin each day of training in less than ideal circumstances. The Engines of UH-1Y Huey and AH-1Z Cobra helicopters rev into overdrive as their rotors spin furiously in the thin air, helping the aircraft maintain a slow, steady descent to safely land Marines. Clouds obscure the mountains, forcing squadron leadership to carefully assess the risk of colliding with phantom ridges hidden in the heights. In this challenging environment, the Marines of HMLA-367 Scarface strive to close the gap between training and combat operations while reducing risk during exercise Rim of the Pacific 2016.

Lt. Col. Matthew Humphrey, the commanding officer of HMLA-367, compared the training environment here to Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California. Twentynine Palms is the Marine Corps' biggest and best site for combined arms exercises, he said, but Pohakuloa Training Area offers aviators training opportunities that can’t be found anywhere else while still providing ample area to fly complex close air support missions.

During the flights, HMLA-367 integrates with a multinational U.S. Marine brigade of air, ground and logistics service members here. This multinational brigade, designated Provisional Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Hawaii, includes elements from the U.S., Australia, Indonesia, Japan (bilateral training only with the U.S.), Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea and Tonga. The Marines of HMLA-367 must maintain situational awareness of adjacent air and ground activity while firing ordnance and participating in a variety of close air support training exercises.

At the same time, the squadron has to deal with high-altitude conditions. Thin, mountain air causes helicopter engines to work harder, which can create more work for the helicopter maintainers. The mountains also create their own weather system, blocking or redirecting air currents, which can cause unpredictable precipitation and high winds.

Humphrey explained that the unpredictable conditions of PTA are what sets it apart from Twentynine Palms and every other Marine Corps combined-arms training location. Every day at PTA, squadrons must monitor the weather to assess and manage risk.

Once aircraft are up, pilots have 51,000 acres of impact area to sharpen their firing skills and support the infantrymen, who have over 32,000 acres of land for ground movement. The terrain is strewn with lava rock and broken up by hills and ridges -- a maneuver warfare training bonanza for both air and ground elements.

“The impact area at PTA is twice the size of that available on Oahu,” said Capt. Matthew Deiska, a Huey pilot with HMLA-367, referring to the Hawaiian island where the squadron is based.

Although the sheer area of Twentynine Palms makes it superior to PTA (Twentynine Palms is approximately three-quarters the size of Rhode Island), PTA offers similar training benefits along with the unique challenge of high-altitude elevation, Humphrey explained.

Humphrey mentioned that other unique combined arms training opportunities are facilitated by the variety of units participating in exercise RIMPAC 16. He specifically mentioned the opportunity to conduct forward air control airborne operations, which involve pilots controlling flight patterns and airborne ordnance delivery while reducing the risk of endangering adjacent air or ground units. The squadron conducted these FAC (A) operations alongside other 1st Marine Aircraft Wing squadrons and a host of ground units, including infantrymen with 3rd Marine Regiment, artillerymen with 12th Marines, and soldiers with 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment.

Integrating with PMEB-HI is challenging because HMLA-367 typically trains solely as an aviation unit, explained Humphrey. As part of the aviation combat element for a brigade, HMLA-367 primarily focuses on supporting troops on the ground.

“This exercise allows us to come out here and integrate with all of the people from PMEB-HI,” said Humphrey. “It’s awesome for our junior pilots because they get to come out and fly on this range and learn terminal control. At the most senior level, (pilots) can come here and fly with all these different assets, and at the squadron level, it’s great because I get to learn to integrate into a larger MEB.”

Humphrey said that despite the unique challenges of RIMPAC, his Marines are adapting quickly because of their level of dedication. The maintainers are accustomed to 12 and 13-hour days of wrench-turning and detailed maintenance checks. The pilots are continually engrossed in an educational process that involves maintaining and building upon their proficiency as aviators.

“[My Marines] lose more sleep at night here if we’re not supporting the MEB,” said Humphrey. “They take it personal; their dedication is eye watering.”

The Marines of HMLA-367 are now more than halfway through the month-long training evolution of RIMPAC 16. In approximately one week, they will transition from the ranges at PTA to the shores of Oahu, where they will provide close air support for an amphibious assault to cap off the exercise.