CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan --
Marine Corps aviators in Afghanistan are using one of the hottest electronic devices on the market to help keep Afghan civilians and coalition ground troops safe.
“iPads allow close-air support aircrew several advantages,” said Maj. Marc Blankenbicker, the lead fire control officer for the Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron Harvest Hawk detachment at Camp Dwyer, Afghanistan. “First is the ability to carry 500 large charts, known as gridded reference graphics, on one electronic tablet.”
Currently, a handful of 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) squadrons use Apple’s iPad in Afghanistan. This includes crewmembers for AH-1W and UH-1Y light attack helicopter squadrons, AV-8B Harrier pilots and the crew of the Harvest Hawk equipped KC-130J.
Each of these aircraft provides close-air support for Marines, Afghan forces and other combined team ground troops in Nimroz and Helmand provinces. Marine aviators said the electronic tablet helps them quickly access maps and other data they can use to ensure precision strikes are targeted at enemy positions.
“There are hundreds of thousands of buildings in the area of operation. Essentially there is no room to carry all of the maps in the small cockpit of the Cobra. It can be a real inconvenience to pull them all out and reference them during flight,” explained Capt. Michael Christman, an AH-1W Cobra pilot with Marine Light Attack Squadron 267.
“Instead of scanning sheets of paper, we type in a sector name or a four-digit grid coordinate and the iPad will center on the desired area,” said Blankenbicker.
Blankenbicker said another advantage of using the tablet over traditional maps is the pilots’ ability to mold its functions to whichever platform they are flying.
“We are not forced to use only one or two configurations or applications for the entire wing,” said Blankenbicker. “The iPads can be tailored to each platform. The ability to remain flexible is what has made innovations like this so useful.”
The aviators said the iPad didn’t enter the fight in Afghanistan as a headquarters-driven initiative, but was instead an implementation by a pilot, for pilots. Capt. Jim “Hottie” Carlson, an AH-1W Cobra pilot,with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369, thought of and implemented the idea during his Afghanistan deployment as a way to save time and space.
“This was something that a pilot came up with through his own initiative,” said Christman. “It was definitely one of those situations where necessity is the mother of all invention.”
“The use of the iPad by Marine aviators is now sanctioned by the Marine Corps,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Mowery, the commanding officer of HMLA-267. “Naval Air Systems Command was very skeptical initially but now they have looked at the program and authorized us to do it.”
Though many aviators agree the iPad is an improvement over traditional charts, some aircrew members and pilots have noticed limitations and difficulties associated with its use.
AH-1W Cobra pilot 1st Lt. Justin Reinwand and UH-IY Huey crew chief Cpl. Eric Monroe, both deployed with HMLA-267 from Camp Pendleton, Calif., said one setback they have noticed is that just as with most electronic devices, the iPad will eventually run out of power if not charged.
“Something based on this system specifically designed for what we are utilizing it for would be even better,” said Christman. “It doesn’t really work the way we would like it to ideally, but we are making it work how we need it to because there is no other convenient alternative.”
Blankenbicker’s initial impressions were positive and have remained positive throughout the eight months he has used the tablet.
“My first thought was, ‘Brilliant. That makes perfect sense,’” said Blankenbicker. “They fit perfectly into this environment. Even with having never used one, it was apparent that there were endless advantages.”
“After eight months in theater, all of the close air support operators continue to come up with more and more ideas about how iPads can be further used,” he added. “We learn as we go and expect those that take our place to improve what we have now.”
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