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Two F/A-18C Hornets with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 122 fly over head during Southern Frontier at Royal Australian Air Force Base Tindal, Australia, Aug. 31, 2016. The Hornet squadron trained in low-altitude tactics, building pilots’ confidence and skills with low flying while performing air-to-surface maneuvers simultaneously. Southern Frontier is a three week unit level training helping pilots gain experience and qualifications in low-altitude tactics, close air support, and air ground, high explosive ordnance delivery.

Photo by Cpl. Nicole Zurbrugg

VMFA-122 gets low during Southern Frontier

31 Aug 2016 | Cpl. Nicole Zurbrugg Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan

Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 122 executed low-altitude tactics training during the last week of Southern Frontier at Royal Australian Air Force Base Tindal, Australia, Aug. 29, 2016.

By integrating low-altitude tactics into the three week unit level training, pilots gained or maintained their final qualifications for Southern Frontier, strengthening the squadrons overall combat readiness. 

These aerial maneuvers allow pilots to fly below 500 feet to evade enemy radar detection and sneak up on targets undetected or escape enemy aircraft that are vectored toward friendly aircraft. 

“Low-altitude tactics are used to defeat early warning and target tracking radar from surface to air missile systems, or radar from ground controlled intercepts attempting to keep us from achieving our targets,” said U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Clayton Harlin, an F/A-18C Hornet pilot and low altitude tactics instructor. “We use the terrain to mask ourselves by flying down low.”

The pilots progressively evolved their training regiment, starting with single-attack operations, then moving onto section attacks, and then ultimately a division formation involving multiple aircraft and assets. 

While on their six-month rotation to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, VMFA-122 did not have the opportunity to engage this specific training. The unit used Southern Frontier's open air spaces and terrain to execute this training.

“Low-altitude tactics are skillsets to safely operate in a low-altitude environment,” said Harlin. “This training is ideal on a range where we have mountainous terrain to simulate low altitude ingress to a target area. That’s hard to do here because it’s so flat, but there is great value in training here because it gets our pilots used to flying down low and knowing what they have to do to take care of all the tasks in the cockpit while trying not to hit the terrain.”

Flying so low comes with great risks and requires unwavering concentration. While keeping an eye on the landscape and watching for other aircraft and threats, pilots also need to execute the basic fighting attack tactics. 

“There is a lot going on all at once,” said U.S. Marine Corps Andrew Thomas, F/A-18C Hornet Pilot assigned to VMFA-122. “The major risk is hitting the ground and birds. Taking your eye off the terrain at 10,000 feet may be easy but you can’t do it at low-altitude.”

Low-altitude tactics instructors mitigated those risks for the squadron. Instructors ensure the junior pilots are trained in accordance with the training and readiness manual and program guide, while adhering to very strict rules. 

“To earn low-altitude tactics instructor I utilized a simulator and now here at Southern Frontier, I will execute three flights incorporating everything I have learned about low-altitude tactics,” said Thomas. “With this qualification I can teach our newer pilots the techniques, maneuvers and low-altitude attacks.”

Consistent practice and training of low flying rigs the brain to think through the risks and helps diminish fatalities, according to Thomas. Pilots must continue to build the skills of low-altitude training to maintain their levels of qualification for future operations.

“It may sound silly in this day and age to think about guys going in at low-altitude, chucking and jiving through mountains when we have stealth airplanes and standoff weapons, but this is an entirely possible skillset for the future,” said Harlin. “The threat is never going to change and going in low to a target is one more way we can exploit an enemy weakness. Always having a cadre of pilots who are prepared to execute it, teach it and keep it a part of our community is a very valuable asset.”

Harlin added flying low to the ground builds a whole new level of confidence and skills that can be used in any other part of aviation. 

“Southern Frontier is a great opportunity for all the pilots to refresh and pick up qualifications,” said Harlin. “I have no doubt that we will fly out of here prepared to face any situation.”

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