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24 MEU (SOC) Harrier pilots start new sorties in Sardinia

19 Oct 2002 | Gunnery Sgt. Mike Dougherty 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit

Pilots of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 263's Harrier detachment followed a successful stay in Rota, Spain by breaking new ground with ten days of bilateral training with their Italian Harrier counterparts of the Gruppo Aerei Imbarcati.

The Gruppo Aerei Imbarcati, or Grupaer, is Italy's only Harrier squadron.  For the first time in several years, pilots from both countries shared ranges, experience and more than 100 flight hours over the island of Sardinia
According to Capt. Jeff Bonner, an AV-8BII+ pilot with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), he and his fellow Marine aviators found the whole experience extremely valuable, for several reasons. "The combined training with the Italians was definitely the best part," he said. 

While the American pilots primarily train for close air support of ground troops, the Italians train differently, specializing in air-to-air intercepts vice air-to-ground operations, said Bonner.  "It's interesting to see how a different country operates their aircraft," he said.  The MEU's pilots and those of the Grupaer practiced tactical air-to-air combat on their flying days, which benefited the Amphibious Ready Group, said Bonner.  "That increases our ability to perform EDATF, or Emergency Defense of the Amphibious Task Force," he said.  This ensures that the Harriers are ready to defend the ships from any hostile aircraft if need be.

The bilateral aspect of the training was uniquely valuable in a different sense as well. "(Training with the Italians) allows for joint training as we progress toward joint missions," said Bonner.  And for both squadrons, it was a good chance to get flight hours, he added.

Bonner, along with pilots of the U.S. Air Force's 555th Fighter Squadron from Aviano, Italy were in agreement on their assessment of the training opportunities on the island. "Here, they have some of the best ranges in Europe," said Bonner. The Air Force F-16 Viper pilots deployed to Sardinia for more than three months during the reconstruction of their flightline in Aviano, and were equally enthusiastic about training on Sardinia.  One of the best opportunities there was the Grupaer's Autonomous Air Combat Maneuvering Instructor, or AACMI. "I've never seen one more advanced - it was definitely 'tip of the spear,'" said Bonner.

The AACMI incorporates a training pod that hangs from the aircraft's wing in place of its missile system, and visually transmits the position of the plane along with those it is flying with and fighting against at all times. Also, it monitors any ordnance that is fired by the aircraft during the training mission. 

After the mission, pilots are able to see an "instant replay" of their sortie with all its engagements on the AACMI's indoor component. This system consists of a bank of large monitors that displays different elements of the flight profile, and features audio effects to simulate missile engagements, according to Cmdr. Massimo Russo, Commanding Officer, Gruppo Aerei Imbarcati.  The largest one shows a "God's Eye" view, displaying all aircraft and shots fired.  The others show graphic illustrations of the views from each plane's cockpit, while the remaining screens show the actual field of view from the pilots' HUD, or Heads Up Display.  Between all of these different representations of the flight profile and engagements, it effectively lifts the 'fog of war' from aerial combat with multiple planes, and takes the guesswork out of determining who-shot-who, said Maj. James Wellons, a pilot with the MEU's Harrier detachment. 

Despite the sixty-plus sorties flown and the skills honed by flying with their Grupaer counterparts, the Marine aviators only scratched the surface of what Decimomannu has to offer in terms of training - pilots may run out of flight time before they run out of range - an uncommon occurrence over land.  According to Maj. Keith Chirico, the U.S.'s AV-8B exchange pilot to Italy, the island has the only laser range in the Mediterranean, which provides a significant opportunity for the MEU Harrier team to integrate and maintain "Precision Guided Munitions" proficiency training during every deployment.  Accumulation of flight hours and sorties is important, but the quality of the (training) depends upon airspace and range flexibility that allows training which closely simulates combat operations.

Now that the Marines of HMM-263 have successfully exercised and once again validated dual-site operations, all that stands in the way to enable future Aviation Combat Element detachments to take advantage of Decimomannu's training opportunities is the proper funding and 15 days of "white space," or time in between operations, said Chirico.   Precision Guided Munitions training is crucial in providing the support Marines on the ground deserve...It's of enormous value to the MEU, he said.