Continuing my tour of US special forces, I recently had the privilege of spending a fair amount of time with Marine Squadron VMGR 252, the Squadron – nicknamed “Otis” – which operates the KC-130J refueling platform.
This Squadron’s flexibility stands out, as it is both a logistical squadron as well as a squadron capable of providing precision-guided fire support from the same sometimes cumbersome-looking platform.
“Otis” stands out in another aspect as well: it is the longest-standing continuously active Marine Squadron. VMGR 252 has been operating continuously since 1928, during which time it operated the first of the C-130 Hercules variants since 1961.
The Squadron’s main purpose is providing logistical support for Marine Corp. troops wherever and whenever needed. That support includes the refueling of various Marine Airborne assets whether fixed wing, tilt rotor or helicopters. Additionally, the KC-130s can provide support and supplies to Marines in combat directly, using the aircraft’s capability of landing on rugged terrain or parachuting supplies.
As mentioned, one more interesting fact about this squadron is its capability to provide fire support in the form of Hellfire guided anti-tank missiles from several of its aircraft. Codenamed “Harvest Hawk,” this platform provides additional tools for the Marine Corps operations worldwide. The “Harvest Hawk” platform was established due to the budget cuts the Marine Corp. has suffered from, as well as the increase in cost of the new F-35B Lightning jet fighter.
The Squadron, led by Lt. Colonel Scott M Koltic, is laden with various performance and safety awards dating back all the way to its inception. Safety is a key aspect in operating these large aircraft; the squadron’s work can be dangerous at times and the necessity of making sure that even potentially dangerous missions are executed with no unnecessary risks is ever apparent.
Due to these security considerations, during my time attached to the unit various missions were either cancelled or positioned elsewhere in order to increase the level of safety of the training missions, due to bad weather.
The spirit of the Marine Corps is starkly unique when speaking to the members of “Otis”, whether it’s the straight forwardness or the “Hoorah” when finishing a statement, the saying “Once a Marine always a Marine” seems to be everywhere I turn.
One of the younger members of the Squadron, Sgt. John Luna, a Maintenance Specialist, explained that most appealing part to him when joining the Marine Corp was the different challenges the service threw his way. Luna, in addition to his regular duties in the Squadron, has also became a martial arts instructor through the Marine Corps.
On the more senior level, Maj. Rodney Rodriguez, the Squadron’s Executive Officer (XO), recounted how initially he was more interested in tanks and ground warfare and was part of an US Army ROTC, but after spending more time within the military structure he fell in love with the Marine Corp. and qualified to start Pilot Training within its ranks.
Maj. Rodriguez added that the KC-130J which he currently flies greatly increases the Marine Corps capabilities as a team and expands any other platform’s capability when working in tandem with them.
Interestingly enough, the mission he found most fulfilling during his time in the Squadron was deploying to Africa to help fight Ebola. Of all “combat” missions, Rodriguez describes Otis’s role in this mission as a testament to the Squadron’s vital contributions in any theater the US Marine Corp. plays a role in. Otis provided the refueling support for 4 MV-22s deployed to Ebola-stricken areas in Africa as well as humanitarian supplies for the civilian population at risk, all in the same flight.
During my brief stay at the Squadron, Otis was involved in supporting a fleet-wide exercise. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to ride with an Otis KC-130J during one of its missions.
This mission entailed an early bird rise due to the required briefing, scheduled for 0500. That morning, upon my arrival to MCAS Cherry Point, I was greeted with a surprise: heavy traffic. At 5 a.m. the entrance to the base seemed like bumper to bumper on the FDR.
The reason for this? Marines wake up early. Most days begin at 5 a.m. – it seems like they try to make the most of the day!
On this morning I was trying to make the most of mine: an 8 hour flight including two refueling sorties and a series of “touch and gos” at MCAS Beaufort, another Marine base nearby.
Briefing begins in Otis’s “ready room.” The aroma of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee is pretty overpowering, and apparently I am not the only one who can use a boost this early in the morning. The briefing touches on what is planned as well as a series of “what ifs” in case of an emergency. Added to the briefing is my request to fly with the KC-130J ramp doors open in order to gain the best possible visual material.
Since flying at 10,000 feet with the ramp open has certain potential risk factors, we go over a series of procedures to make sure I am on the same page with all the crew members. In this case, previous experience is an added bonus, so both the crew and I are on the same page when it comes to safety.
We head out to the aircraft just as the sun is starting to rise on the tarmac. The base is already buzzing with activity. We get situated in the aircraft; I get to fly in the jump seat for take off – an experience that never gets old.
After the pilots complete their checklist we take off and head towards the Atlantic, where we will “run a track” and rendezvous with a pair of brand new F-35B Lightnings.
The Marine crew chief tells me and a fellow Marine Corps photographer to get set; we hook in to the aircraft and with the push of a button the crew chief opens the ramp. All at once the wind is blowing furiously in my face and it's time to inch towards the edge of the ramp. Just five steps bring me right to the edge – to my right are 2 F-35s flying right off the KC-130s wing. The view is stunning.
For the KC 130J “Otis” pilots this is a pretty mundane exercise. They keep the aircraft as level and steady as possible and the fighter jets do their best to make contact quickly and efficiently.
The F-35s stay “on station” for approximately 40 minutes before returning to their base, and we set a course behind them towards MCAS Beaufort as well where one of our aircraft’s pilots will practice take offs and landings for a couple of hours.
After concluding our first half of the day we refuel in MCAS Beaufort, take off, and are set to refuel another eight F-18 fighter jets. The exercise is extremely intricate and it is essential that these fighters “hook up” so they can continue on their assignments.
After almost eight hours in the air, we return to Cherry Point for debriefing following the mission.
The commander of the 252, Lt. Col. Scott "Bobcat" Koltick, tells me that he is extremely proud of his squadron's mission to extend the Marine Corps' strategic arm by expanding the range of all Marine aircraft, as well as providing logistical and fire support to Marines in combat.
According to Koltick, no matter who the squadron's clients are, whether Marine infantrymen on the ground or F-35 fighter pilots in the air, they receive the highest professional support when in need. From the squadron's perspective, there is no difference and they are always there for them. There is almost no activity beyond US borders that his squadron doesn't have a part in logistically.
After an intense three days with Otis Marines I felt like I had only scraped the surface of what made them so unique – but I definitely saw a bit of what Maj. Rodriguez had seen in finding the Marine Corps so special