KALSU, Iraq -- The AH-64A Apache is the U.S. Army’s principal attack helicopter. It’s equipped with some of the latest avionics and electronics and can be operated almost anytime, in almost any weather, day or night.
Here since April and flying the Apache, Task Force 1/151st Aviation Attack Battalion patrols Iraqi air from a small post south of Baghdad. The unit also provides convoy security and protection for warfighters on the ground.
And while the unit supports the mission of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), the firepower they can bring to the fight would be of no use without those who give them the green light to the skies.
The Marine Air Traffic Control Mobile Team provides the ‘close in’ air control for the Army’s warbirds, which operate from here.
Instructions for ground traffic include clearance to proceed on and off the airfield, while instructions for aircraft include entry and exit instructions into Kalsu’s air space, take off and landing instructions and taxi instructions. In addition to providing movement control of the aircraft they relay any additional information the pilots may need before taking off on a mission.
In case of an emergency they pass information to the Marines in the Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting section to give them an idea of the situation which allows the emergency responders to better prepare for what they may face.
“One of our main jobs here is to keep aircraft separated,” said Sgt. Jason Gray, air traffic controller with Marine Air Control Squadron 2, Detachment Delta and Hardeeville, S.C., native.
“There are so many combat operations going on here that there has to be someone who keeps the aircraft from flying into each other," he said.
Another responsibility of the team is to de-conflict outgoing rounds with aircraft flying in their air space. According to Gray, some of the units here fire 155 mm howitzers and the controllers coordinate with them so that the weapon fire does not jeopardize flight operations.
On a base inhabited primarily by U.S. soldiers, the Marine presence is minimal. Gray and his team are here because they are trained to conduct operations in an expeditionary environment.
“The [Marine Air Traffic Control Mobile Team] is normally tasked with setting up an expeditionary airfield for operations within minutes,” said Gray, on his second deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. “We have four air traffic controllers, a communications technician and a navigational aid technician.”
Though each Marine is unique in his own way, unit cohesion plays an important role in helping the team accomplish its mission.
“We may have differences and disagreements but we know what the task at hand is and it takes each one of us to accomplish it,” said Lance Cpl. Russ Bonham, an air traffic controller from Statesboro, Ga. “All of us work as hard as we can out here to let those back home enjoy the freedoms we want the people of Iraq to enjoy one day.”
Working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the team supports the mission of aircrews who call Kalsu home as well as those just passing through. Though some of the pilots they interact with are Marines, the majority of the pilots they talk with on the radio are Army officers.
“This is my first time working primarily with Army pilots,” said Gray. “It took some time to get used to it, the procedures are a little different, but it’s been a pleasure working with them. I am from South Carolina and the 151st is from the South Carolina National Guard, so it feels good to be serving with guys from my home state.”
The senior man in the team, Gray is proud of the work his Marines are doing here. “The guys in the team are doing a great job, often under stressful times, and I’m very proud of them for completing every mission,” said Gray. “If it wasn’t for their perseverance we would have not have done the things we’ve set out to do.”
The Marines and soldiers here have integrated in a way that it’s hard to tell they’re not from the same branch of the military. Their combined efforts are instrumental in ensuring brighter economic, political and security conditions for the people of Iraq.
- For more information about the Marines reported on in this story, please contact Sgt. Juan Vara by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org -