CHABELLEY AIRFIELD, Djibouti --
As the sun slowly descended behind the mountains overlooking Chabelley Airfield, Djibouti, a small group of U.S. Marines quickly prepared their gear to turn a barren stretch of desert into a makeshift runway.
For the Marine Air Traffic Control Mobile Team (MMT), a six-man team from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, homeported at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, setting up an austere landing zone in time for an aircraft to safely land is just part of the job.
"We're marking an airfield so they can have a safe space to land," said U.S. Marine 1st Lieutenant Brian Taylor, MMT team leader. "It aids the pilots to land within the thresholds and know the distances of how far they have to stop and take off."
An ALZ provides a visual reference to the location of the airfield and lets pilots know the length of the runway. This allows aircraft such as C-130s carrying personnel and equipment to land anywhere in the world.
According to U.S. Marine Sergeant Christopher Bickel, MMT assistant team leader, although an ALZ can be set up almost anywhere 3,000 feet of flat ground can be found, there are other variables that must also be considered.
"There can't be large potholes in the area," said Bickel. "Also, if the soil is too loose, the aircraft could skid so we use a dynamic cone pentrometer to find the density of the soil beneath the top layer."
After identifying a suitable surface for a C-130 to land, the team begins the ALZ set up.
The base man ensures there is 300 feet of overrun on each end of the runway as well as usable width. At the same time the base man is measuring, three other Marines are running the length of the runway.
"The 'pace and chase men' run down to the 500-foot mark to begin setting up their four panels, two on either side of the runway," said Bickel. "This creates the box which is the target zone for the aircraft to touch down in."
The third Marine is the reference man and runs to the opposite end of the runway to determine the usable surface.
Once the reference man says, "reference up," both the reference and the pace man hold up panels toward the base. Then the base man uses binoculars to line them up.
This guarantees the left side will be a straight line," said Bickel. "Once that is done, the chase man measures 60 feet from the pace man and nails his panels in. This continues all the way down the rest of the runway."
According to Bickel, being able to set up an ALZ is crucial in assisting aircraft missions. It allows for troops and gear to be inserted virtually anywhere in the world by C-130 Hercules planes, CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters or many other types of aircraft.
"We provide our commanders the ability to keep the battle line moving forward at a rapid pace," said Bickel.
Even with the assets to keep the front line moving, setting up an ALZ is no easy job. Each member of the team is under constant physical strain.
"The hardest part of setting up the ALZ is our reduced mobility caused by running with so much gear," said U.S. Marine Sergeant Travis Ihle, MMT air traffic controller.
According to Ihle, while setting up ALZs, MMT members can carry an average of 40 additional pounds of gear, which includes individual body armor, a Kevlar helmet, a rifle and ammunition, along with the tools and supplies required for set-up.
"Although the reduced mobility is an obstacle," said Ihle, "The safety benefits of wearing proper personal protection equipment outweigh the hindrance of immobility."
Despite the heat, heavy gear and coordination involved in setting up an ALZ, having the ability to land a C-130 in the middle of the desert makes their work worthwhile.
"The MMT is irreplaceable," said U.S. Marine Captain Khalil Guest, a C-130 pilot from Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252 supporting 22nd MEU.