The sand explodes from the beach as monstrous crafts, flying 6 feet above the water as seagoing transport vessels, almost effortlessly transform into shore-side ships.
Ships that, upon reaching the beach, open their bellies and regurgitate one of the most lethal cargoes the American military can muster: Marines and the tools of their trade.
These amphibious vehicles, known as Landing Craft, Air Cushioned, have been in use by the Navy since their first deployment in 1987. They were developed to satisfy the need for a vehicle capable of carrying troops, artillery, tanks, vehicles and other major items of combat and support equipment across the beach from the water.
Crew members liken riding aboard the aircraft. The craft are now being upgraded to generate even more power and carry heavier payloads, so much power, they may even be able to fly. In fact, they receive flight pay, much like conventional aviators.
Unlike aviators, each five-man crew consists only of enlisted members.
"We're proud of being the only Navy enlisted pilots in charge of a vessel," said Senior Chief Petty Officer Paul Erekson, who trains LCAC crew members for ACU-5 here.
Erekson described what it's like to "fly" aboard an LCAC.
"It's exhilarating to pilot an LCAC. They are the fastest units the Navy has on water or land," Erekson said.
The sense of flight stems from the way the hovercraft is propelled. It zips above the water at 40-plus knots on a cushion of air generated by four centrifugal fans driven by the craft's gas turbine engines.
"It doesn't fly, it hovers," Erekson said. "It's governed by the same physics as aircraft. The huge lift fans pump air under the boat, filling the skirt, lifting it off the ground. Then the propellers and bow thruster move it around."
While some crew members throw around the term "pilots," it's more accurate to call LCAC operators "craftmasters," he said.
Now, the LCAC is due for an upgrade. The first of the crafts to be produced is now nearing 20 years of service, a milestone that marks the end of the machine's life span, according to Petty Officer 1st Class Tim J. Solberg, a gas turbine systems electrician and LCAC engineer at ACU-5.
One craft at ACU-5 already has undergone the Service Life Extension Program, said Solberg. The revamping consists of some hull structure changes; installation of a "deep," 6-foot skirt, to replace the original 4-foot skirt, allowing the craft to handle better and carry heavier loads; and the C4N, or command, control, communications, computers and navigation upgrade, which transitions the ship's electronics from analog to digital control.
ACU-5 expects delivery of two more upgraded LCACs in March 2004, Erekson said.
Also included in the upgrade is a new engine. The upgrade allows the LCAC to operate in hotter temperatures and includes variable scatter vanes that give the craft more power. The engine upgrade enables better ship performance in hotter climates.
According to U.S. Navy sources, the engines currently create about 4,000 horsepower each. With four engines, each LCAC currently produces a robust 16,000 horsepower. The new upgrades will allow LCACs to increase their current 60 ton load capacity significantly.
Maj. Gen. Dennis T. Krupp, a former director for the Expeditionary Warfare Decision Office of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, said the LCACs are responsible for transporting 95 percent of tracked and wheeled vehicles for a Marine Air-Ground Task Force during an amphibious landing. In a statement to the U.S. Senate's Armed Services Committee's Sea Power Subcommittee, he said:
"The (LCAC) is absolutely crucial to the Navy and Marine Corps team to rapidly provide sufficient forces to achieve our assigned missions."