KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan --
The Marine Corps Harvest Hawk isn’t the average KC-130J Hercules.
C-130 aircraft have been used by the U.S. military for more than 50 years. The Marines in Afghanistan use the KC-130J Hercules for aerial resupply, aerial refueling, battlefield illumination, and troop and cargo transport.
In addition to its ability to accomplish traditional Hercules missions, the Harvest Hawk comes loaded with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and an infrared targeting system.
The Marines in Afghanistan use this versatile variant of one of the Corps’ most venerable aircraft to provide close-air support and surveillance for ground troops.
“We provide overwatch for Marines as well as close-air support when they are engaged by the enemy,” explained Capt. Jason Dale, a KC-130J Hercules pilot with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252 from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C.
The Harvest Hawk is flown by KC-130J pilots like Dale. Marine aviators from other platforms, like Capt. Michael Wyrsch, an AV-8B Harrier pilot, fly in the cargo area of the Hercules to operate the aircraft’s weapon system.
“The pilots fly the aircraft,” said Wyrsch, a fire control officer for the Harvest Hawk weapon system. “We work as a liaison with ground forces requesting support to deliver munitions on their desired target.”
Each Harvest Hawk fire control officer is specially selected based on experience with other Marine Corps aircraft, like AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters, and F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8B Harrier jets.
“It was pretty bizarre to see Hellfire missiles strapped to a KC-130J,” said Wyrsch of the Harvest Hawk. “But I was impressed with the strikes I had seen the aircraft perform.”
In addition to their skills as Marine aviators, both Dale and Wyrsch bring experience from Marine Corps ground operations to the Harvest Hawk.
“The Marines on the ground need overwatch,” said Wyrsch. “I know from my experience as a forward observer with an artillery unit.”
Wyrsch, of Silver Spring, Md., initially served in the Marine Corps as an artillery officer and deployed to Iraq with an artillery unit. In 2005, he was selected for flight school and eventually became an AV-8B Harrier pilot.
Dale served previously as a forward air control officer with an infantry unit. Forward air control officers are Marine aviators who bring their expertise to Marine Corps ground forces, helping to ensure aviation missions like close-air support and medical evacuations are carried out effectively.
“When I was on the ground in Afghanistan in 2008, a Harrier pilot told me over the radio that this platform was being designed,” said Dale, a native of Versailles, Ky. “ I thought that he was just pulling my leg, but after getting back to the squadron I heard we would be getting one of the weapon system kits.
“My past work offers a perspective of what the guys on the ground are experiencing and enables more fluid communication,” said Dale. “I have the ability to understand what they are involved in and what effects they are looking for when calling for air support.”
Both Dale and Wysrch are currently deployed to Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252, the command element for Marine Corps KC-130J Hercules operations in Afghanistan.
Marine Corps aviators and aircraft maintainers from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., and Okinawa, Japan, serve together in a combined unit in southwestern Afghanistan to provide aerial support for NATO International Security Assistance Force operations with the Hercules, the Corps’ largest aircraft.