DJIBOUTI - A 12 by 6 mile former lake bed, comprised of dry vegetation and compact sand, may seem to be useless ground. However, the Marines from Marine Mobile Air Traffic Control Team see this barren land as an opportunity to create a runway for aircraft as large as a Marine KC-130.
This six-man team from the Marine Mobile Air Traffic Control Team, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364 (Rein.), 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, conducted training here to keep their skills sharp for when it comes to establishing field-expedient runways, Jan. 3 to 4.
The mission for the MMT, or ‘pathfinders’ as they’re colloquially referred to, is to establish an assault landing zone (runway) and provide air traffic control for multiple aircraft, as well as command and control during the entire refuel and resupply mission. Once the aircraft has touched down, the team takes on the additional role of fire support and security until the aircraft lifts off again.
In less than five minutes of stepping out of the CH-46E Sea Stallion helicopter, the team’s two communicators established contact with the Landing Force Operations Center on USS Peleliu. Fluorescent-orange marker panels were already designated and placed at the beginning of the runway.
“If we’re setting up a 3,000-by-60–foot runway for a C-130, our goal is to have [communications] up and have the entire runway laid out within 30 minutes,” said Staff Sgt. Timothy Pinney, staff non-commissioned officer-in-charge, MMT, HMM-364, 15th MEU. “We need to move as quickly as possible to get the aircraft on the ground, conduct the refuel or resupply and get them back in the air, so the Marines can continue their mission.”
While the communicators are establishing a connection with the LFOC, the controllers begin establishing the path, or runway, said Cpl. Rick Coon, air traffic controller, HMM-364 (Rein.), 15th MEU, and Thousand Oaks, Calif., native.
“We have one Marine as the base near the orange panels that mark the beginning of the runway. Then, one Marine runs out 3,000 feet and is the reference point. The base will use the reference point to direct the additional Marines, who will mark left and right limits every 500 feet for the runway,” said Coon.
All distances starting from the base are measured by using the tried and true method of a pace count, which is most reliable, said Coon. His team gets within a foot from the 500-foot mark and within 10 feet of the 3,000-foot mark, he added.
“We conduct [physical training] in full combat gear on the flight deck to help keep our pace count consistent. We’ll run for a little bit to tire out, then measure out the distances we need to hit, and work on our count to ensure our average pace remains the same,” said Pinney. “We have range finders and scopes, but we usually use pace count because it’s the most reliable.”
While the runway is being established, Pinney is communicating with the pilots of all the aircraft waiting to land. He acts as a mobile air traffic control tower who is responsible for controlling the airspace, so that aircraft do not cross paths. He also keeps them updated regarding wind speeds, landing times and anything on the ground that could affect the landing.
“This job gives me a huge adrenaline rush,” said Pinney. “When I’m controlling airspace and landing times for multiple aircraft, it’s an amazing feeling.”
The perfect situation for them is plenty of daylight and a full team. However, because of the expeditionary nature of the MAGTF, that might not always be the case, so the MMT is also capable of establishing the ALZ during hours of darkness.
“We either use [night vision goggles] and infrared lights or overt lights to light the path. When we set up infrared lighting, someone driving by wouldn’t be able to detect anything, but the pilots see it lit up like the JFK [airport]. If night vision is not available, we’ll light the path with standard airport lighting techniques,” said Pinney, whose hometown is Stafford, Va.
While the table of organization for the MMT is 6 Marines, it is not uncommon for there to be less than that. Therefore, Pinney’s team is always cross training to ensure every Marine can perform every job.
Only about five percent of Marines in the air traffic control military occupational specialty hold the additional qualification of MMT, said Pinney. Marines must complete the follow-on six-week course from Marine Aviation Weapons Tactics Squadron 1 at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., to become a qualified combat ATC. While at MAWTS-1, the Marines receive advanced training in different radio systems and airfield /helicopter landing zone techniques as well. This is so they can learn how to conduct assault landing zone surveys.
The MMT provides a crucial task for Col. Scott Campbell, commanding officer, 15th MEU.
“Having the MMT at his disposal doubles, if not triples, the distance he is able to place Marines in a forward environment,” said Pinney. “Being able to refuel aircraft or rearm an infantry company in remote locations is what makes the Marine Air Ground Task Force an invaluable and extremely successful force.”