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A Breed Apart: Marines Train Enlisted Navigators

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas, Aug. 21, 1997 – The youngest student in the current class of Marines was only 17 when he began learning to guide Marine Corps C-130 aircraft. Now nearing graduation, he's attained the ripe old age of 18.

"Some of these Marines seem awfully young, but they're sharp and they learn fast," said Chief Warrant Officer David Bellow, deputy director of the Marine Aerial Navigation School here. The youthful students are a little intimidated by their Air Force and Navy counterparts across the street, who all are older and have college degrees. "That's one of the reasons we train separately," Bellow said.

The Marines use the same T-43A twin-engine jet aircraft and simulators used in Air Force-Navy joint undergraduate navigator training, but they have a different course syllabus. Since they'll serve exclusively on prop-driven C-130s, their course concentrates on celestial navigation used in those aircraft. After earning their navigator wings, they'll receive six months' additional training at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. From there, they'll move to operational assignments in KC-130 aerial refuelers or with C-130 squadrons performing air drops of people and equipment and hauling cargo. It's choice duty for Marines, and only a handful pass muster.

"Marine enlisted navigation is a very small career field, with only about 80 personnel," said Bellow, senior instructor for the class graduating Sept. 5. "We hold three classes a year. For the next class, 30 applied, but only 15 were selected. Up to 30 percent will wash out before they earn their wings."

The Marines are first invited to volunteer for navigator training while they're undergoing technical training at the Marine Corps avionics school in Memphis, Tenn., or other schools. A few come from operational assignments. A board screens and selects those who will go on to Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., for five weeks of primary aviation training.

"We look for maturity and the ability to work independently and work with pilots," Bellow said of the screening process. For example, he said, a Marine lance corporal may be navigating for a full-colonel pilot. "He needs to be able to talk 'navigator to pilot,' not 'lance corporal to colonel,'" he said.

At Randolph, students spend seven months learning navigation basics, including 14 flights in the T-43 flying classroom. To remind them they're Marines first, instructors lead them in physical training at least three times a week and involve them as a group in community projects and social activities. One of their flying missions is to another base, where they spend a couple of days off from the rigorous training schedule.

"I took my current class to Puerto Rico, and we went scuba diving," Bellow said. The school's three classes were slated to travel 150 miles south to Corpus Christi in August for a change-of-command ceremony at their parent unit, Marine Air Training Support Group.

Lance Cpl. Thomas Smolenski epitomizes the qualities the Corps seeks in its enlisted navigators. Born in Poland but raised in West Chicago, Ill., Smolenski is also an unusual exception. After graduating from high school, he earned a degree in aviation management from Southern Illinois University, earned a private pilot license and worked as a flight instructor in Kentucky before joining the Marines. He wanted to be a pilot, but there were no openings; recruiters told him he'd have a better chance if he applied through the enlisted ranks.

Used to studying, he excelled at the Randolph school but admitted it was more intense than he thought it would be. "Next week, we have three check rides to show what we've learned," he said. "That's a lot of testing for one week."

Smolenski said he hopes the Marines will select him for officer candidate school and aviator training in the near future, but if not, he'd like to launch his navigator career in Okinawa. In the meantime, he's bonded with his fellow students and said he'll miss them when they graduate and head in different directions.

"Out here in Texas, the only family any of us has is each other," he said. "We depend on each other, hang together and help one another." Like his fellow students, Smolenski takes pride in himself and the Marine Corps. In a few weeks, the pride, hard work and hanging together will produce 10 new members of the Marine Corps' elite group of enlisted navigators.

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