KUWAIT -- The "Atlantic Nomads" Marines of Marine Air Support Squadron 1 from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, are a small entity here, however, they have played a huge role in the success of 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing's air operations and I Marine Expeditionary Force's ground combat operations during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
According to Maj. Dennis A. Crall, MASS-1 executive officer, they knew they would have a valuable mission from the outset of the campaign.
"We knew that we were performing a critical mission," he said. "Due to the rapid prosecution of the campaign, units out ran their communications capability. We're a small piece of a much larger Command and Control infrastructure, however, as the Wing Commanding General stated, our unique line-of-sight capability was considered a 'center of gravity' for the war effort. This capability was properly exploited by the main Direct Air Support Center (DASC) and Air Support Elements we support and would not have been of much use without their noteworthy efforts."
Three crews of seven to nine Marines have flown numerous hours daily with no gaps in coverage of the battle area, working in a small, crowded box monitoring radio traffic and directing aircraft to their missions or alternate missions.
Their workspace is one of four AN/UYQ-3A portable airborne Direct Air Support Centers which are loaded onto a KC-130 Hercules aircraft. Each DASC is equipped with UHF, HF and VHF radios. It can also be loaded onto a 5-ton truck for ground DASC missions.
The crews consist of three officers and four to six enlisted Marines who operate the different positions in the DASC. Positions include the senior air director, tactical air request/helicopter request operator, tactical air director, helicopter director. There are also two communications/electronics maintenance technicians who ensure the radios are operating properly and repair them if required.
According to Capt. Jason Murtha, MASS-1 senior air director, the crew serves as information gatherers and disseminators.
"We facilitate communications between the ground forward air controllers and the aircraft," he said. "We let the ground know who they should talk to and let the aircraft know where they are needed. At times, we are the only ones that have communications with anyone. However, we need to be fluid since missions can change several times."
Crall agreed stating the crews know basically what the missions were assigned to the squadrons during for their scheduled flights, however are also tuned in to the unaccomplished missions and divert assets according to priority.
"We ensure the aircraft return productive from their flights," he said. "Whether it's the helicopters conducting medical evacuations or fixed wing aircraft putting steel on target."
According to Lance Cpl. Britten T. Martin, MASS-1 tactical air request/helicopter request operator, the crew can have the center prepared in approximately 10 minutes.
"It's a lot easier since the DASC is already loaded on the aircraft," she said. "All we have to do is set the frequencies and plot the map with the current information. It doesn't take long. It takes about four hours if we needed to switch the DASC with another one or put in on a truck."
Murtha stated each member of the crew is able to perform any of the functions inside the DASC.
"We have outstanding crews," he said. "We continually teach each Marine to be able to perform all the functions of the different positions."
Several of the crew stated although they work inside their cramped quarters on the aircraft and fly in a continuous lap pattern for numerous hours, some of their flights have been hectic and close calls.
"At the beginning of the campaign, we had some anti-aircraft fire in front of the aircraft," said Martin. "Now, there's less of it, however, the plane's crew still keep watch."
"I remember the plane banking hard," Murtha said. "I came out and asked what happened. The plane's crew chief said a missile had just flew by their left wing."
When their flight nears its completion, the crew passes on their information to the next DASC crew then returns to base for a debrief and some time to relax and rest until their next flight.