KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan --
A modified KC-130J flies over Afghanistan ready to unleash a tremendous amount of firepower for the Marines it supports.
Equipped to fire Hellfire and Griffin missiles, the aircraft known as the Harvest Hawk, provides close-air-support (CAS) for Marines conducting ground operations.
“We can give the commander on the ground peace of mind knowing he has these assets in the sky,” said Capt. Dusty Cook, a pilot for the Harvest Hawk.
Cook, a native of East Bernard, Texas, said the aircraft has several elements that distinguish it from other CAS platforms, and have made it highly successful.
He explained that Hellfire and Griffin missiles are ready for every mission along with a sophisticated camera which both guides them and scans for insurgent activity.
“When you put all these things together you get a very deadly system,” he said. “We give the ground commander more precision munitions than any other plane, next to a bomber. Helicopters and fighters [planes] are good, but they do not carry the number of missiles we do and cannot stay in the sky the amount of time that we can.”
Cook said the aircraft’s extended flight time allows it to stay aloft long after other attack aircraft have left because of the need to refuel, giving ground forces precision fire power for extended periods of time.
Cpl. Tom Wicklow, a crew chief with the Harvest Hawk, said another key element to the success of the plane is the tremendous coordination between Marines on the ground and the crew in the air.
“We’re all in contact with what’s going on,” said Wicklow of Morristown, N.J. “When the guys on the ground call us, it’s put on the internal communication system so everyone can hear and understand what is going on,” he said.
“When you hear those gun shots in the background and the Marines returning fire with the urgency in their voices, it really gets the blood pumping knowing that their lives depend on you,” Wicklow added.
When a commander on the ground needs air support, a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) sends the request to the Direct Air Support Center (DASC), which then puts the JTAC in direct contact with the Harvest Hawk.
The pilots and Fire Control Officers (FCOs) of the Harvest Hawk crew have served with ground units as JTACs and understand firsthand the need for efficient and accurate communication. This unique pairing adds a new dynamic to the battlefield.
Additionally, the FCO’s who control the weapon systems on the plane have flown in other CAS platforms. They have been specifically selected because of their experience with AV-8B Harriers, F/A-18 Hornets or AH-1W Cobras.
Capt. Michael Wyrsch, an AV-8B Harrier pilot and an FCO for the Harvest Hawk, explained that his experiences as an attack pilot have been very beneficial.
“Giving close-air-support helped me understand what the guys on the ground are looking for,” said Wyrsch of Silver Spring, Md.
Cook said the Harvest Hawk can still perform the duties of a regular KC-130J, such as battlefield illumination and tanking, however, its primary mission is to support ground forces with the aircraft’s sensor and deadly weapons.
Cook said the main mission of the Harvest Hawk is not air refueling or battlefield illumination, it is to unleash massive amounts of firepower whenever and wherever ground troops need it.