Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Army all use Carteret County sites

Service members in the Marine Corps, Navy, Army and Air Force like to give each other some good-natured ribbing about why their particular branch is better than the others.

But one thing they seem to agree on is the importance of the Cherry Point’s bombing ranges and auxiliary fields in eastern Carteret County.

The Army’s 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade trained last week at Bombing Targets 11 and 9 at Piney Island off the Neuse River and in Pamlico Sound, and at Outlying Landing Field Atlantic in eastern Carteret County.

“Doing the training here, away from Fort Bragg, has been helpful because not only does it allow us to do gunnery, it allows us a great opportunity to exercise systems and field craft and put our paratroopers in a different kind of situation,” said Lt. Col. Hise Gibson, commanding officer of the battalion. “We do not know where we will go or where the nation will send us, but wherever that is, we will be ready to operate in any environment. In preparation for the unknown, getting people away from Fort Bragg and in an environment to have a shared experience, and understand how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, is something that, as soldiers, we have to be able to do.”

Gibson led a dozen helicopters, 60 wheeled vehicles and more than 300 personnel more than 150 miles in a convoy from Fort Bragg to Atlantic last week for training.

The battalion established command and control facilities, administrative offices, air traffic control, aircraft refueling and ammunition stations at the airfield, which was then used as a base to conduct the combat training flights over BT-11 and BT-9 for machine gun certifications for 45 CH-47F Chinook and UH-60M Blackhawk helicopter door gunners. In all, 70,000 rounds of ammunition were used during the training.

“Our ranges down at Fort Bragg for aerial gunnery are under construction, so this is obviously one of the closest ranges that we can accommodate these aircraft and conduct their movements and their air gunnery crews,” said Maj. Adan Cazarez. “The range itself is good in that it gives us that flexibility and mobility of our aircrafts to conduct aerial gunnery.

“At this particular range, we can actually maneuver and engage a target at four minutes at 60 knots compared to Fort Bragg where we are engaging the target at 30 seconds at the same speed, so you can see the difference right there. And it’s also simulating the way we conduct operations in a real environment.”

BT-11 is a larger range than ranges at Fort Bragg, allowing helicopter gunners to shoot while the aircraft is traveling at faster speeds.

“In order to replicate what we call running fire, which is when we get up to a higher airspeed, we don’t have as much space,” said Maj. Crispin Burke. “That means less time to engage the target and it’s not as good training. Out here, BT-11 is about five miles long, so that gives you plenty of time to look at targets, get up to higher speeds and engage the targets, so it’s very good to replicate the conditions we’ll find in combat.”

Specialist Arturo Garza, a UH-60M Blackhawk crew chief, said BT-11 can provide pilots more realistic targets.

“It’s pretty good,” Garza said. “It provides bigger obstacles such as armored vehicles and lifelike situations. It provides us with close amphibious assault vehicles, which we do not get a chance to see over at Fort Bragg and other bases. Right there, it takes us out of the box and makes us think about different situations that we could find ourselves in defending the United States of America.”

Edward Minchin, range officer at Cherry Point, said the ranges and Atlantic Field are in restricted airspace, allowing for a better training environment.

“It is one of the few places left that we can actually do live-fire training,” he said. “A lot of the carrier battle groups now use our range as one of their live-fire ranges. It’s an inert range in that we are not dropping high explosive ordnance but they are dropping blue bombs and the new laser-guided and joint deployable munitions, the smart weapons on the range.”

He said the BT-9 and BT-11 ranges also allow special Navy boat teams to train using 50-caliber machine guns.

He estimates that the range is active 250 days out of the year, with Marines using it about half the time. He points out that Air Force F-15s from Seymour Johnson in Goldsboro and Navy F-18s from Oceana in Virginia Beach, Va., also use the ranges, while helicopters can fly missions from Atlantic, an old World War II fighter base.

“They used to run anti-U-boat missions out of here back in the day,” Minchin said. “Now it’s just maintained for training purposes for the military.”

The ranges and auxiliary fields are not without controversy. For example, some residents have complained about noise, especially jet noise from the landing field at Bogue, which is near Cape Carteret and Emerald Isle. Many fishermen and recreational boaters protested against planned temporary expansion of prohibited areas around the bombing ranges, saying such measures would cut them off from prime fishing and recreational areas in the Neuse River and Pamlico Sound.

Currently, a regional joint land use study is being conducted that looks to address compatibility issues among residents and their communities, and Cherry Point and its training areas. A meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Atlantic School. Information is available online at http://poll.cityzenapp.us/Project/Index/6.

But as for the Army personnel, they appreciated the opportunity to train in Atlantic and to use the bombing ranges.

“The Marines have been very gracious as hosts, especially in providing us the airspace and the land that we required to actually set up and operate within their restricted area, so they have been very helpful and we have been very appreciative,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Michael Sirmans, who worked in air traffic control for the army battalion.

Sirman’s job was to make sure inbound and outbound aircraft were separated, while providing traffic and weather advisories, warnings, and directions for landings and departures.

The only winged creatures that refused to cooperate in the operations area were the Down East mosquitoes.