Early Friday evening before the sun set, planes and helicopters approached Libby Army Airfield from the north and could be seen on the radar console inside the airport’s control room. Planes on final approach to Tucson International Airport populated the outer rim of the display as several 130-Hercules aircraft slowly approached the Army airfield.
The Marines and aircraft were flying in from Marine Air Station, Yuma, for a training exercise on the installation. “This exercise happens twice a year, every April and October,” said Carol Thompson, airfield manager. “This [exercise] allows them to fly in, overtake an airfield, set up a perimeter and then go again.” Thompson also explained that the exercise also fills their training needs for hot-pit refueling of aircraft.
This exercise is part of the Marines’ training to prepare and certify they are ready for future deployments. The ability to secure an airfield for aircraft to land, refuel and resupply helps them to maintain proficiency on a variety of skills. “Once they finish this exercise, they are ready to go downrange,” Thompson said.
On the west ramp of the airfield, a loud roar was heard as two F/A-18 fighters streaked overhead as the sun began to cast red and orange tones in the sky behind the Whetstone Mountains. In the distance, one could hear the rumble of several circling C-130 Hercules planes flying racetrack patterns around Libby Army Airfield, and their blinking lights were visible just over the mountain ranges.
Suddenly and with little warning, five CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters were silhouetted in the darkness. The choppers landed almost simultaneously on the edge of the airstrip. They could barely be seen as they deposited a number of Marines onto the airfield.
The only evidence that the Marines are present and on the ground are the blinking landing lights of aircraft. The men pass in front of the lights to maneuver and take up defensive positions.
The CH-53s, each capable of carrying 38 fully-equipped combat Marines, once again take flight and move to a second objective while the Marines remain and begin to seize the airfield. Again, the night is silent. The Marines move slowly and methodically, as they are trained to do, with only faint outlines to show their positions. The first group sets up a perimeter as the leader calls in on the radio, announcing that they are in position. He constantly refers to his map.
A second group of Marines, moving silently and giving away no hint of their presence, slowly moves in from the opposite side of the airfield to the edge of the brush and mesquites. Having secured the perimeter and neutralized any threat, they meet up with the first group.
A massive C-130 Hercules roars as it approaches the landing strip on the airfield, moving into position within the perimeter set by the Marines. The ones on the ground secure the area as the crew begins the refueling exercise.
More than 30 minutes pass with little movement from the Marines on the ground. The hot refuel exercise continues safely. In the crisp air of the Arizona high desert, the men remain silent, using hand signals and an occasional flash of light to relay the progress of the exercise. The only sounds to be heard are the engines of the Hercules and the occasional roar of an F/A-18 Hornet conducting over-watch for the Marines on the ground.
Then out of nowhere, the unmistakable sound of the Sea Stallions could be heard approaching the airfield once more. They again land in succession, using the night as their camouflage. They fly dark, casting only the vaguest of silhouettes as they landed next to and behind the C-130 on the ground. The night was so black that one would not know the planes were there if it was not for the recognizable and distinct sound they create.
As silently and as quickly as they arrived, the Marines faded into the darkness and moved on to their next objective on Hubbard Air Strip, an even darker, more remote dirt strip on Fort Huachuca’s East Range. After the Marines concluded their training exercise at Hubbard Airstrip, they returned to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, mission complete.