Marines and spectators dot the flight line of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 167, Marine Aircraft Group 29, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW). Overhead, the whirling sound of rotor blades catches everyone’s attention; distant, then piercing. A formation of AH-1Z Vipers becomes visible, approaching at high speed.
On Nov. 9, the first Vipers arrived at Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina. Replacing its predecessor of 30 plus years, the Vipers are equipped with 21st century technology and significant upgrades.
“The ordnance payload, carrying capability, digitized cockpit and systems integration throughout the entirety of the aircraft are the biggest improvements over the AH-1W Super Cobras,” said Maj. Jeffrey P. Pullinger, a cobra pilot with the unit. “The ability for all of the systems to talk together in order to assist the pilot and reduce workload is the main enhancement we’re excited about.”
HMLA-167 is the first unit within 2nd MAW to receive the Vipers, while 3rd MAW received them in late 2008 and 1st MAW in late 2017. In early 2019, HMLA-269 will acquire the aircraft, making them the last unit within the Fleet Marine Corps to have them. By 2020, the Marine Corps is expecting them to be fully operational and employed across the fleet.
“Personally, I’ve had four years of experience with the Zulus, coming from 3rd MAW,” said Sgt. Garrett W. Syfert, an airframes mechanic with the unit. “Now that I’m here, my job is to teach the Marines the knowledge I’ve gained while working on the aircraft and catch them up to where they need to be.”
Both pilots and maintainers are required to return to Marine Light Attack Helicopter Training Squadron (HMHT) 303 to complete a syllabus specifically for the Vipers. Experienced Cobra pilots have to essentially start from scratch, learning about the new Viper before following up with more advanced qualifications, according to Maj. Pullinger. For two months, maintainers undergo their basic training for the aircraft, then return to the squadron for hands on training to complete their official qualifications.
“It’s a complete different beast,” said Sgt. Carl E. Veigle, an avionics technician with HMLA-167. “Not only do they fly faster, they’re able to hold more fuel allowing for a longer time on station to support the Marines on the ground.”
Since the release of Gen. Robert B. Neller’s Commandant of the Marine Corps 2016 Planning Guidance “Advance to Contact,” the Marine Corps has seen continuous upgrades to both technology and aviation assets with the employment of the F-35 Lightning II, unmanned aerial systems and the integration of the AH-1Z Viper across the fleet, providing both tactical and operational advantage above emerging threats.
“I think in the future battlespace, standoff is going to be key over the next five to ten years,” Pullinger said. “The Zulu’s sensor ability and capability to carry laser guided weapons and the advancements of those weapons is going to be absolutely crucial to provide us the standoff in order to still prosecute those targets without exposing ourselves to undue risk.”
With the arrival of the Viper, HMLA-167 will effectively and more proficiently continue its mission of providing offensive air support, utility support, armed escort and airborne supporting arms coordination, day or night under all weather conditions during expeditionary, joint or combined operations.
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