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CP opener 

USA roundel gyZulus and Yankees at the Camp

One of the main reasons we visited the USA this March was to witness first-hand the new mounts of the Marines, the UH-1 ‘Yankee’ (or Venom) and AH-1 ‘Zulu’ (or Viper). In this article we will describe Camp Pendleton and its heritage, the UH-1Y/AH-1Z procurement program and the insights on operating these new ‘snakes’ shared by our hosts at HMLA-369.

CP Zulu side shot

Camp Pendleton

For those that are familiar with the area it is no secret that this Marines facility is huge. It hugs the Northern border of San Diego County and spans more than 125.000 acres, over 500 square kilometres. You will understand that this is not just ‘a base’ but also holds vast training areas. In fact, the various military encampments can be viewed as separate entities within the main area and are regarded as villages by the locals. You can drive from one place to another and hardly see any build-up areas in between. The base is bustling with activity with over 70.000 employees, the majority of which live outside the camp which obviously has a significant impact on the local economy.

Its beginnings were quite humble though. The main area used to be a large ranch that was acquired by the US Marines in April 1942. At that point in time the ranch was quite successful and the needs of the armed forces high, so a sum of US $ 4.2 million was paid to acquire the whole area. Instantly, it became the biggest Marines base in the whole country. It took five months for the reconstructions to be finished and convert the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores into a military facility. It was named Camp Pendleton by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on 25 September 1942 in honour of Major General Joseph H. Pendleton. This was a World War I veteran and zealous advocate of a West Coast Marines training facility. Because the camp has been a military area for nearly 75 years now, it is the largest undeveloped area of Southern California and a sanctuary for wildlife that has vanished from the Greater San Diego area over the years.

During the Second World War, training was aimed at amphibious assault and shortly after that, in 1946, became home to its current main tenant, the 1st Marine Division. The fifties and sixties saw a major training effort in preparing Marines for both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Gradually, the focal point of training shifted to a more integral approach. Modern day conflicts often require a combined force of seaborne, aerial and land assets. To train a so called ‘expeditionary’ force requires the actual presence of these various elements under one roof, Camp Pendleton being ideally suited for that of course.

CP Yankee hover duo


This brings us to our main area of interest, the flying assets! Camp Pendleton has a small airfield along Vandegrift Boulevard in an area that is known as North Camp Pendleton, so a 15 minute or so drive onto the base from the main gate. This area was among the first installations and created as a Marine Corps Auxiliary Landing Field (MCALF) back in September 1942. In that capacity it served as a satellite to be used by the flying units based over at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. With a 1.830 metre dirt strip it was not a very big airfield. Typically it was used by HRS-1 and 2 Dragonflies and the odd C-45. These operations started in November 1942 and towards the end of the Second World War the installation was upgraded as a Marine Corps Outlying Landing Field (MCOLF) for Marine Corps Auxiliary Field Gillespie and shortly after began to receive combat units to be temporarily based for training. Records show that these first units were VMO-5, operating OYs (Stinson Sentinel) from April to September 1944, VMFA-323, sending 21 brand new F4U Corsairs and a single SBD Dauntless from May to June 1944, and a large detachment from VMF-471 with 31 F4Us and three SBDs was ‘on board’ from July to December 1944. In 1945 the airfield was also used as an alternate parking space by El Centro’s MAG-35 which resulted in larger transport aircraft to be present up to and including the Curtiss R5C Commando.

After the Second World War the field was again relegated to secondary tasks temporarily housing aircraft for training. The filming industry used the airfield on many occasion for feature movies, like The Flying Leathernecks and Tarawa, and TV-series like The Black Sheep. It still took quite some years, well into the sixties, before the first unit was actually permanently based at the OLF. Significantly, this was Marine Observation Squadron FIVE (VMO-5) ‘Black Aces’, not coincidently the first unit to be based for a prolonged time back in 1944! Having been decommissioned in 1946, VMO-5 was used as the new designation for the Headquarters and Maintenance Squadron 30 (H&MS-30) that was already based at Camp Pendleton but without aircraft of its own. Upon re-designation to VMO-5 in 1966, the unit was equipped with OV-10A Broncos and UH-1E Hueys. Its current incarnation, HMLA-267, is in actual fact still based at Camp Pendleton with their distinctive Ace of Spades on the engine intakes.

Recognising its increasing role in training and with the aerial assets of the Marines playing a pivotal role in the Vietnam War, the airfield was upgraded to Marine Corps Air Facility (MCAF) on 1 September 1978. At that point in time the tenant command for the flying units was Marine Aircraft Group 39 (MAG-39), itself being reactivated September 1976 resorting under the 3rd Marine Air Wing. By the early eighties it consisted of four tactical helicopter squadrons (HMA-169, HML-267, HML-367, HMA-369 all later HMLA), one helicopter training squadron (HMLAT-303), one observation squadron (VMO-2), and one aviation logistics squadron (H&MS-39, later MALS-39). This meant that the facilities had to be upgraded and more ramps and hangars were built. The buffed up airfield was re-designated Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Camp Pendleton on 13 March 1985. The airfield is named Munn Field to commemorate Lieutenant General John C. ‘Toby’ Munn who was the first commanding officer of the air station. Today it houses seven flying units with around 180 aircraft between them!

CP Zulu head on

The UH-1Y and AH-1Z

Trying to untangle and summarize the whole program would merit an article on its own as its parameters have shifted over the years. It all started out as an upgrade program for the existing AH-1W and UH-1N fleet, “H-1 (4BW/4BN) upgrade”. Objective was to increase communality, safety and performance while bringing down operating costs. Over the years the UH-1N, in service since 1970, and the AH-1W, in service since 1986, have received many upgrades. This resulted in enhanced capabilities but also in weight increases on the 105 UH-1Ns and 201 AH-1Ws on the inventory by the end of 1998. Of these, 100 and 180 respectively were to be upgraded. At the same time, funds were needed for the MV-22 program and it was decided to launch an upgrade to existing UH-1/AH-1s with more powerful engines, new avionics and weapon systems. To underpin the commonality between the airframes, the project organization was largely integrated and it can be regarded as one program for the UH-1Y (4BN) and AH-1Z (4BW). This would deliver helicopters good for another 10.000 hours and 30 years of service, enough to be kept in service until a new “joint replacement aircraft” could be developed and fielded in the 20s. Also, this original program set-up meant rotating active aircraft into the upgrade program, thus subtracting them temporarily from the hard pressed active fleet; this was deemed to be too much of a burden. So, after the first ten refurbished UH-1N were delivered, the program switched to completely new airframes. In 2010 it was decided to increase the total number of aircraft to 123 UH-1Ys and 226 AH-Zs, of which 168 would be remanufactured and the other 58 newly built.

Another significant change was the gradual increase of the number of UH-1Y over the AH-1Z. The UH-1Y uses the same Thales TopOwl helmet mounted display system (HMDS). And although the AH-1Z has a more advanced targeting system than the UH-1Y, the latter is also qualified to fire BAE’s Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) laser guided rockets next to its 70mm unguided rockets and machine guns. Taken into account the ample power supplied by the two General Electric T700-401C engines and the superior speed, payload and range for the UH-1Y adds to this rationale. This will see the typical unit complement shift from the eighteen AH-1W and nine UH-1N mix, to a fifteen AH-1Z and twelve UH-1Y set-up.

Lastly, the decision to remanufacture many of the AH-1W into AH-1Z has been abandoned too. It proved too much of a burden on the active force and costed too much time to execute. So the last remanufactured AH-1W were eight aircraft from Lot VIII in Fiscal year 2011; paired with six new ones in the BuNo-range 168516 to 168529. The program now aims to get a final mix of 160 UH-1Ys and 189 AH-1Zs. Fiscal Year 2016 will see the last batch of UH-1Ys, with 27 AH-1Z requested for subsequent Fiscal Years. But this is obviously subject to change! With Pakistan ordering the AH-1Z, the production batches will be muddled further. With the UH-1Ys being distributed to both East and West Coast units and the West Coast units rapidly transferring to AH-1Zs, it will not be too long before we see an operational deployment by a unit fully equipped with the Yankees and Zulus.

CP duo shot

HMLA squadron operations

We were hosted by Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369 (HMLA-369) “Gunfighters”. This squadron’s history is actually closely intertwined with that of Camp Pendleton and the use of attack helicopters by the Marines. It was activated on 1 April 1972 at Futenma in Okinawa, Japan from the cadre of H&MS-36 as Marine Attack Helicopter Squadron 369 (HMA-369), assigned to Marine Aircraft Group 36. From the very start Huey Cobras, the Juliet model, were issued to the unit and used in earnest during the Vietnam War. This started 20 June 1972  with operation Marine Hunter Killer (Marhuk). With that, the offensive use of helicopters for close air support and suppression of enemy fire started. This marked the first use by the Marines of the attack helicopter. Another ‘first’ for the “Gunfighters” was the combat use of the 12.7mm ‘Zuni’ rocket. After the Vietnam War, the unit relocated to Marine Corps Air Facility Camp Pendleton to become part of the first line-up of permanently based units.

During 1987 the UH-1Ns were issued to the unit prompting a re-designation into HMLA-369. This also meant a change of doctrine and tactics. Various parings of assault to attack helicopters could now be made by a single unit and depending on the task the mix between AH-1 and UH-1 is chosen. This is still the case in the current doctrine but as we mentioned above, things are about to change. Because of the enhanced capabilities of both helicopters and notably the UH-1Y, the squadron now has more Venoms than Vipers. The UH-1Ys started to arrive with HMLA-369 in late 2009 and it operated this bird alongside the AH-1W from 2010 until 2015 when the unit became one of the first units to be fully equipped with “H-1 Upgrades”.

CP Busy fll

Obviously these are exciting times and we got a nice back stage view of this. One of our first and obvious questions for both the UH-1Y and AH-1Z pilots was to describe the difference between the old and new aircraft. Power seems to be the key word here! Venom pilots applaud its ever present power reserve, even in hot-and-high circumstances. In actual fact the gearbox is not able to cope with all the engine power, so that gives an indication how much reserve there still is. Another trick up the UH-1Y sleeve is that it has the same sights and partly the same arsenal as the attack helicopters, vastly increasing its mission capabilities. Of course, the UH-1Y has already been combat proven and its capabilities are more established than the AH-1Z, but that also means that there is more to develop and grow with the Zulu system as was explained to us. Neatest piece of kit is the helmet mounted sight. You can ‘slave’ information from the cockpit display, and vice versa, use voice cueing and you hardly notice it is in front of your eyes. The inner helmet is actually ‘moulded’ to fit the pilot’s head which is necessary to have an exact calibration between the sight and the pilot’s eye.

The Viper has been beefed up but has not gained any substantial amount of armour or weapons compared to the latest modified Whiskey models. When asked the Zulu pilots try to put the difference between the old and new under words in terms of cars, “the new AH-1Z is just like a muscle car, lots of power as long as you go straight and have plenty of room to play with, but the Whiskey was like a European supercar, it had more of a strapped on feeling and agility”. His colleague disagrees: “I think it is the other way around! The old Whiskey was more or less a crude muscle car and the Zulus are potentially more like a supercar. Besides you could hear the Whiskey coming from 8 kilometres out!”. It goes without saying that these reflections merely underpin that the difference is in the eye of the beholder and both are very capable weapon systems. Also, that the learning curve with the AH-1Z is still very much at its beginning. Asked about the wishes for the future, the pilots grinningly entrust us, “our commanding officer wants the Gunfighters to be the first full H-1 Upgrade squadron to be deployed operationally”.

CP Yankee line up

With the different mix between Venoms and Vipers as compared to the previous line-up, the detachments and deployments will be slightly different too. The organizational break-down with the AH-1W units used to be eighteen on strength in total. That will be fifteen with the AH-1Z; twelve as operational squadron strength will become ten, and six as regular detachment strength should become five. With the UH-1Y a new variant for their organizational strength was introduced already, although that will again be altered as more and more Venoms are delivered. From nine to twelve aircraft on total strength, from six to eight on operational squadron strength, and from three to four on detachment strength. This guideline marks the gradual shift in the mix between the two and follows the pattern of the increased number of UH-1Ys to be acquired. This was already partly witnessed at Red Flag 16-2, with sister “all H-1 upgrades” squadron HMLA-169 attending with six AH-1Zs and four UH-1Ys. With the initial conversion to the UH-1Y now completed, all units will receive more airframes to reach their so-called ‘full authorization strength’ of fifteen aircraft each, likely meaning a nominal unit complement of eighteen aircraft.

With the ongoing deliveries and conversions to the AH-1Z, the added UH-1Ys and also a pair of MV-22 squadrons present, Camp Pendleton easily trumps other Marines facilities and houses more firepower on its own than an average European country can field in its entirety.

CP Yankee fr behind