During early February 2011 AeroResource were privileged to spend the day at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. Arizona. Mark Forest and Jason Grant produce a photo report from the days events...
During our day on the base, our time was taken up visiting Marine Aircraft Group 13 (MAG-13) which has a complement of four AV-8B Harrier II attack squadrons, the Northrop F-5 Tiger II s of VMFT-403 Adversary Squadron, and the aircraft and crew of the Search And Rescue flight in their HH-1N Hueys. Time was also spent with Flt LT D J McKay of the Royal Air Force, who is a Royal Air Force Harrier exchange pilot, Marine Attack Training Squadron 203 (VMFT-203), a visiting east coast AV-8B/TAV-8B Harrier II unit home based out of MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina, and finally CH-146 Griffon helicopters from 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, home based out of Edmonton, Canada which were taking part in the final stage of exercise Desert Gander.
On the 24th June 1959 the base came under the control of the United States Marine Corps after being used as an Army Airfield during World War II, an Air Force Base during the mid 1950s and briefly as a Navy base in 1959. On the 20th July 1962 the base became known as MCAS Yuma (Vincent Field). Through the 1960s to the early 1980s, F-4 Phantom IIs were based here from the Fleet Replacement Squadron. Soon after the Phantoms had transferred out to MCAS El Toro, California, the AV-8A/C moved in. By the late 1980s the A/C model Harriers had been replaced by the Marine Corps newest aircraft the AV-8B Harrier II and today, four squadrons are based here. The air station is a joint military-civil Airport sharing some 3000 plus acres with Yuma International Airport. Yuma has 2 main runways that measure 4,054 metres (13,300 feet) and 2,812m (9,241 ft); in addition there are 2 much smaller runways. The elevation is 66m (216 ft) above sea level and it is situated some 2 miles from the city of Yuma.
Whilst on board MCAS Yuma we were granted visits with all but one of the resident Harrier squadrons. Our first visit of the morning was with Marine Attack Squadron 311 (VMA-311) “Tomcats”. As soon as we arrived we were transported to the end of the runway to photograph an early morning check flight air test by the director of standardisation and safety, Flight Lieutenant Douglas McKay, a Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI) formally serving with 20(R) sqn at RAF Wittering. Flt Lt Mckay has been serving for 16-months in the Pilot Exchange Program (PEP) as a front line USMC attack pilot with the “Tomcats”.
Flt Lt Mckay in his specially marked AV-8B put his aircraft through its paces practising a number of vertical and short take-off and landing (VSTOL) manoeuvres. Half way through the air test Flt Lt McKay taxied the aircraft to our position for us to photograph it on the taxiway. Four very grateful photographers were not going to miss this opportunity and later that day we were able to thank Flt Lt McKay for the opportunity he presented. Upon returning to the air for another short sortie it was time for Flt Lt McKay to return to the refuelling pit. What a privilege it was to see the last front line RAF Harrier pilot flying this incredible, iconic aircraft. We are aware his tour with VMA-311 comes to an end later this year and we would like to offer him our best wishes for the future.
Next stop on our Harrier tour was the “Flying Nightmares” of VMA-513 here we were given a tour of the units aircraft. Thirteen aircraft were on strength with aircraft 01 having a special marked blue tail. This aircraft was observed in the hot pit where the aircraft refuel whilst the engines are still running, as soon as they are refuelled they return to their mission. We also visited VMA-513s hanger to see an AV-8B II stripped down under heavy maintence.
We continued down the ramp for approximately 75m to VMA-214 “The Black Sheep squadron”. This very famous squadron is best known from its exploits during World War II with Colonel Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, who became the Black Sheep’s Commanding Officer. “Pappy” Boyington became a WWII fighter ace flying the Vought F4U Corsair and shooting down 26 enemy planes. He ended the war as a POW, and was only released after Japan surrendered. On returning to the USA, Gregory “Pappy” Boyington was presented with the nation’s highest honour, the Medal of Honour from the President of the United States of America. He was also presented with the Navy Cross from the Commandant of the Marine Corps.
Before visiting the unit’s aircraft we were allowed to visit the crew “ready room”, which is adorned with memorabilia from the squadron’s history dating back to the war against Japan in the Pacific. The room looked more like a Hawaiian beach bar than a “ready room” but still retained the flavours and sentiment of the past. Our next stop was the ramp and shelters to photograph the unit’s aircraft as they prepared to launch for the next mission of the day. Noted departing from the shelters was a specially marked aircraft 01, with high visibility nose markings and black tail, under the canopy the name of Maj Gregory “Pappy” Boyington was proudly displayed. This aircraft would be seen a few days later attending the Centennial of Naval Aviation (CONA) show at Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego, California.
The final Harrier tour of the day would be with “The Hawks” of VMAT-203 an East coast Harrier training squadron home based out of MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina. The “Hawks” were on a 2-month detachment to Yuma due to the mild winter weather conditions found in Arizona. Our host from the squadron was Lt C Daniels who kindly gave up his time to let us photograph all the detached aircraft and especially the TAV-8B II s, which is a two-seater variant of the normal Harrier. We were allowed to see inside the cockpit of the Harrier, after we had overcome the challenge of climbing up. Visibility was great from inside the cockpit, it was high up but surprisingly cramped.
It was a wonderful experience for the four of us, spending half a day getting up close with one of the most iconic aircraft in modern aviation history and rather sad that we had to travel half way round the world to see them since the early retirement of the RAF’s Harrier force on 15th December 2010.
On the 18th March 1986 VMFT- 401 “Snipers” was activated as an adversary squadron for its Marine Corps pilots. The role of the squadron is to improve air-to-air combat training “Dog Fighting” especially against Marine Corp pilots. Today the squadron flies the very agile and fast Northrop F-5 Tiger II. All aircraft wear a camouflaged paint scheme and a red star on the tail fin. All pilots of the F-5 Tiger II are “Topgun” graduates/instructors or Weapons and Tactics Instructors (WTI) from the Marine Corps. During our short visit with the squadron were allowed to photograph aircraft departing on one of their four daily missions; perfect sunlight and very eye catching paint schemes gave rise to some great photographs.
MCAS Yuma flies 3 HH-1N Hueys painted in red/white for visibility, they always have one set of crew on 24 hour standby with two aircraft available in case one breaks down. The operating radius is normally within a 100 miles of Yuma and the helicopter will be flown on a mission for around 2.5 to 3 hours or until fuel is required. Its aircraft have also been known to perform aerial fire fighting as well as the normal rescue missions. Even though the helicopters are operated by the Marine Corp, they will attend all emergencies military or civil if required. Search and rescue flew 27 missions in 2010 and at the time of our visit, 4 rescue missions this year. Again we were given an excellent tour of the ramp, helicopters, hanger and a 10-minute talk in the “ready room” on the mission goals and aircraft of the SAR flight.
Before finishing the visit on MCAS Yuma we had an opportunity to photograph CH-146 Griffons the Canadian designation for the Bell 412 operating from the visitors ramp. Most of the helicopters had departed on missions over the Yuma proving grounds, which are in the desert. The CH-146s from 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron are based is Edmonton, Canada and were on the final stages of their deployment called exercise Desert Gander. The exercise focus is air to ground landing of troops in the desert conditions. The helicopters photographed carried a 3 tone green “camo” and one was heavily covered in sand from missions over the Proving grounds.
Noted on the base Airpark before exiting at the main gate were a number of preserved aircraft. The five aircraft on display are types that have served with the Marine Corps on MCAS Yuma over the last 50 years. The types noted were A-4L Skyhawk, F-4B Phantom II, AV-8A Harrier, F-5E Tiger II and a new addition for 2011 is a HH-1N Huey from the SAR flight.
To close this article for AeroResource we would thank all the squadron Captains for allowing us time to visit and escorting us around their ramps and aircraft, Cpl Malter our excellent Public Affairs guide throughout the day. The British and United States Embassies in the UK and USA. A very special mention of thanks and gratitude must go to the Director of Public affairs Captain Staci Reidinger whose commitment to getting the visit approved and this article written was exemplary.