JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii—Some Airmen consider the Marine Corps’ landing strip on the southeast side of Oahu island in Hawaii to be the most difficult to land on in the world. Surrounded on both sides by water and protected by a mountain range, the 7,800-foot runway is near a population center. Small islands rise from the waters of Kaneohe Bay.
It’s also perfect for practicing the Air Force’s concept of agile combat employment (ACE), which requires Airmen to practice landing in austere Pacific island locations as though they were in a contested environment.
“This is the most difficult airfield to land at in the world for C-17s,” said Maj. Niko Votipka, assistant director of operations for the 535th Air Mobility Squadron at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, as he circled around the southern tip of Oahu in a simulator after departing from Honolulu’s airport, which is co-located with the joint base.
“This is actually one of the strips that we do practice our assault landings on,” he said, a reference to flying low under radar and managing with minimal equipment and manpower.
Marine Corps Base Hawaii’s runway was not listed in the simulator’s database as an austere location for practicing ACE, but the former F-15 pilot who’d spent the past four years flying cargo to places such as Guam, Diego Garcia, the Marshall Islands, Thailand, and Alaska, immediately prepared to descend anyway.
“I’m wrapping the jet in to get to a downward position. I’m slowing the jet down. I’m also descending the jet,” he narrated above the simulated sound of the C-17’s four engines.
“The reason that makes this approach so difficult, is because we have to fly it up against the mountains. We can’t fly over land because of local restrictions,” Votipka said, referring to agreements with the state and county. “Basically, we descend very, very fast, and we want to get the jet down as fast as possible and spend as little time close to the ground as possible.”
The pilot started announcing his actions over a beeping sound: slats out, flaps extended 75 percent.
“This is a lot tighter than when we fly most of our approaches,” he said, putting flaps out to 100 percent, pulling back power, and lowering the nose in the direction of the bright sand and nearby blue waters. Just past two white bars painted on the runway was where the assault landing needed to take place.
The jet’s head-up display (HUD) said 5 degrees above the horizon, nose low, with a green bar lit across the landing point Votipka was targeting.
A simulated female voice announced 50 feet from touchdown. Votipka cut power when he hit the ground hard and threw the engines into reverse throttle for a quick stop in approximately 1,500 feet.
“It’s normally very, very bumpy,” he said. “It’s violent.”
Confounding enemy targeting by quickly moving from island to island is hard and expensive to practice, but it’s a lot easier on the islands in U.S. territory, said Airmen who recently practiced ACE in Hawaii.
“It’s an added benefit of being here,” said Hawaii Air National Guard Master Sgt. Ryan Morita, superintendent of power support systems at the 154th Maintenance Squadron, which has 1,000 personnel assigned to it and is the largest Air National Guard wing in the nation.
“We have the geographical location—it’s expensive for us to go anywhere else,” Morita said of practicing ACE in Hawaii’s Pacific islands, the focus of Pacific Air Forces’ preparation to meet China’s pacing challenge.
“We have the benefit of having a channel or a body of water between us, and we can treat it as a hub and spoke,” he said of the string of islands, most of which have landing strips. “Having that body of water presents its challenges in itself.”
To prepare for the inter-island ACE exercise Ho’oikaika 22-1 in March, equipment was flown between three locations: two on Oahu and one on Hawaii’s big island, just like it would be for an ACE exercise in a remote American territory in the Pacific or with a partner nation.
And even though Hawaii could have all the infrastructure and equipment that the Air Force would ever need, in the exercise scenario, communications were cut, and teams were required to select the absolute minimum equipment and personnel to take to the spokes.
“It was simulated … but the equipment didn’t get to us,” Master Sgt. Brian Lampitoc, a maintenance crew chief in the Hawaii Air National Guard, said of the fast-paced, high-intensity exercise.
“It’s nonstop boots on the ground, running, just constantly,” Lampitoc said of the exercise, the third ACE exercise he has practiced in the past year. “I was amazed with combat comms and how quick they could just set up.”
The 26-year Air National Guard veteran said combat communications had set up equipment and had the base up and running within an hour at the Marine Corps landing strip known as “K-Bay” that was acting as a spoke.
Lampitoc, meanwhile, was operating with a skeleton crew when he got word from the hub that some equipment would not arrive.
“I was pretty much frustrated with that because I was like, ‘How do I get jets out of here if I don’t have equipment?’” he recalled.
The Hawaiian ACE exercise taught him to think more keenly about the bare minimum equipment he should bring.
“If a jet lands, and we don’t have the right equipment to get back on track, the assets won’t be able to get off the ground,” he said, describing a breakdown on landing that grounded a jet when he conducted a previous ACE exercise in Guam.
“It was a pretty big ask. And it was a pretty, really big task,” Morita recalled of the Ho’oikaika exercise, which also used the big island’s Hilo International Airport as an austere location.
To simulate an austere location at Hilo, security forces secured the airfield and civil engineering personnel set up a mobile kitchen, while pilots recovered aircraft themselves, exiting the cockpits and chalking their F-22s until maintainers could arrive.
Runners were even employed to fly between spoke locations when communications was down. The challenging exercise taught the integrated team of Active duty and Guard Airmen that they could still overcome challenges and execute the mission.
“We can adapt, we can overcome, [when] we have challenges and obstacles,” said Morita, who predicts that Hawaii will be used for more inter-island ACE exercises in the future. “I’m sure—we’re sure of it.”