By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake
We started our series of interviews of the founders of MAWTS-1 with Randy Brinkley, call sign “Dragon.” He was the fourth commander of MAWTS-1.
As Dragon explained it: “Howard DeCastro was the first commander of MAWTS-1, followed by Bobby Butcher who become a Major General, then Jake Vermilyea who was the first helicopter commanding officer who headed MAWTS-1 and I was number four.”
He explained that “for the fixed wing F-4/F-18 aviators, they would go through Top Gun prior to coming to MAWTS-1, meaning that they would have mastered their air-to-air combat skills before becoming MAWTS-1 instructors and working the USMC focus on support for the ground forces.
“The F-4/F-18 aviators had to first go through a MAWTU Air Combat Tactics Instructor ground/flight syllabus before being considered for attendance to Top Gun. Howard DeCastro was an early graduate of this training and one of the very best F-4 aviators in the Marine Corps. Bobby Butcher was also one of the best A-4 attack aviators in the Corps. Both were most deserving to be early commanders of MAWTS-1!:
Dragon described the evolution of MAWTS-1 in those early days as upon rapidly shifting from being an aviation training facility to one supporting the MAGTF. He emphasized that John Lehman who was Secretary of the Navy during Dragon’s tenure as commanding officer of MAWTS-1 provided significant leadership in this transformation and taking the MAWTS-1 template and applying it Navy-wide.
According to Dragon: “John Lehman made MAWTS-1 a Navy-wide strategic asset that he used as a catalyst for Top Gun to move to NAS Fallon and be interfaced with the newly MAWTS-designed Strike University to support the integration of the carrier air wing training. He saw using the MAWTS-1 template as a way to shape the attack and fighter communities to talk to one another and to operate in an enhanced integrated fashion. As a reserve officer, he came to MAWTS-1 and found a home and took that experience with him as a serving Secretary of the Navy.”
Dragon underscored that the decision was made to alternate commanders from the fighter to the rotary wing community to lead MAWTS-1. Jake Vermilyea was the first rotary wing commander and Dragon served as his XO and when his time came. he became the commander.
Dragon entered the USMC as an infantry Marine and serving in Vietnam he determined that he wanted to become an aviator for the rest of his career. As a Company Commander at Khe Sanh he watched an F-4 Phantom drop out of the clouds to lay down “snake and nape” outside the wire and determined he wanted to do that. He then received orders to flight school from combat: “You could support the Marine on the ground but fly back to your base at the end of the day and have a beer. That seemed to me a better choice. I would much rather go in harms way than order young Marines to do so.”
The unique Marine combat relationships he forged in combat is personified in his career as a perfect example of the USMC air ground integration. His infantry CO serving with him in Vietnam eventually became the head of Marine Corps of Marine training and who was then overseeing MAWTS-1 as Dragon became part of the leadership process in building such a professional air ground integration center of excellence.
Dragon’s XO was the legendary Fred McCorkle, who was a CH-46 officer. As Deputy Commandant for Aviation, then LtGen McCorkle would prepare the way for the Osprey and the F-35 which truly has put the USMC in the leading position for air-enabled distributed operations.
Throughout our discussion, Dragon underscored how MAWTS-1 is focused on the practical “doing” of integrated force operations. At one point in the discussion, he put it this way: “We are focused on how we integrate the force, the MAGTF. We could do things that nobody’s ever thought of because that’s what Marines do. We’re thinking outside of the box. That is what Marines have always done, have to do. But in MAWTS-1 you are in an environment that allows you to do it on steroids.”
“Easy” Timperlake then asked “Dragon” to talk about how the Israeli Kfirs become the foundation for adversary squadrons operating with the USMC and the US Navy. This story also provided insight into Lehman’s key role in the evolution of MAWTS-1.
This is how Dragon described the situation: “One Sunday afternoon, prior to Lehman flying his reserve aircraft back to Washington DC from Yuma, he asked: ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’
Dragon answered: “Well we need aggressor aircraft to work with us during our WTIs. We are having difficulty convincing Top Gun to come over and play that role.
“The next day I received a call from Lehman where he informed me that he talked with the Israeli Prime Minister, and they were going to provide three squadrons of Kfirs to play the aggressor role at MAWTs-1 and with the Navy as well.
“Lehman indicated that the Navy and Marine Reserve pilots would operate the aircraft and the Israelis (IAI) will have a maintenance contract to support the Kfir aircraft flight operations.
“I was speechless but not for long because my next call was from LtGen Keith Smith, head of Marine Aviation who ordered me to meet with him at 0900 the next day in his office for a meeting with the Commandant at 10 to explain why this new program landed in his budget and how and why did this happen. The Commandant put it bluntly to me: “Brinkley you better make this damn thing work!”
“Easy” then asked about the ranges available to MAWTS-1 and their importance. Dragon underscored that why MAWTS-1 is at Yuma is precisely because of the ranges. The Navy ranges, the Air Force ranges, the Yuma Proving Ranges as well as the ranges at MCB 29 Palms are all within the reach of operators from Yuma. That is why Yuma was the clear choice for integrated aviation training. Brinkley mentioned in passing that when the IAF sent two pilots to the WTI course, they were awed by the training ranges which were larger than the entire country of Israel.
One observation that Laird made was that the kind of integration worked at MAWTS-1 focuses on the distributed force. Now that the U.S. and allied militaries are focused on various forms of force distribution, the Marines are obviously pioneers and continuing to lead in many ways how to practically shape distributed forces.
Dragon underscored that from the beginning, the leaders of MAWTS-1 were focused on practicing how to do FARPs. He highlighted that Jake Vermilyea was the founder of this effort and Fred McCorkle was the follow on catalyst.
How do you bring the different kinds of aircraft together? How do you do the logistics? How do you do the C2 for a distributed force in an austere environment?
As Dragon put it: “This is in the DNA of the MAWTS-1 community and an incubator for change in the MAGTF and the joint force. It began that way and it continues today with MAWTS-! Being an integral element of the MAGTF training at MCB 29 Palms.”
And incorporating this experience, one can realistically shape requirements and approaches to next generation platforms, systems, and capabilities.
Dragon noted: “There are two critical aspects for successful distribution operations: logistics and command and control. You have to have the operators practice and solve the logistical and C2 problems. You have to figure out how to do so with what you have.
“At MAWTS, the CH-53 guys, the F-35 guys and so on have to figure out how their platform fits into such an operation. And based on this experience, you can think through what future needs can be met to do it better.”
Brinkley emphasized that with regard to future developments, the Advanced Development and Tactics Evaluation department at MAWTS-1 continues to play a key role. “These are the warfighters and strategic thinkers like Col. Mike Mott who first headed up ADT&E for MAWTS-1. These are the people that that are the best of the best. They’re guys that know what we need in the next generation of platforms to optimize our warfighting capability.”
Also, see the Johnson Space Center Oral History interview of Brinkley:
Or view it as an e-book:
Mr. Brinkley established Brinkley & Associates Company as a private investment and aerospace consulting firm in August, 2004. Mr. Brinkley is also a limited partner and member of the Operating Executive Committee for J.F. Lehman Company, a private equity investment firm. Mr. Brinkley is also a member of the U.S. Space Board of Directors.
Mr. Brinkley was formerly President of Boeing Satellite Systems Inc. (BSS), the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial communication satellites and before that was Senior Vice President of Programs for Hughes Space and Communications Company. Mr. Brinkley was the NASA Program Manager for the International Space Station (ISS) from 1994 until 1999.
While at NASA, Mr. Brinkley was responsible for the integration of Russia’s participation in the ISS Program and the successful on-orbit assembly of the first elements of the ISS. Before his assignment as Program Manager for the ISS, Mr. Brinkley was Mission Director of the Hubble Space Telescope Repair Mission in 1994. From 1990 to 1992, Mr. Brinkley managed research and development activities for advanced aircraft systems and technologies at the McDonnell Douglas Corporation.
Mr. Brinkley served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 25 years before retiring as a Colonel. As a Company Commander in the Third Marine Division, Mr. Brinkley saw combat in the Republic of Vietnam before entering the U.S. Air Force pilot training program and subsequently becoming the Navy’s Flight Instructor of the Year and the Marine Corps’ Aviator of the Year.
Mr. Brinkley has flown more than 4,000 hours in 42 types of aircraft, which include the F-18 Hornet, AV-8B Harrier, and the F-4 Phantom.
Mr. Brinkley received his B.S. degree from the University of North Carolina and a M.S. degree from Boston University. He also graduated from the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN), Amphibious Warfare School, NATO Defense College, and the Marine Corps School of Engineering.
Mr. Brinkley has received awards for his outstanding achievement in aerospace, including the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and two NASA Outstanding Leadership Medals. Mr. Brinkley was also awarded the1993 Aviation Week and Space Technology Laurels Award, the National Aviation Association’s Robert J. Collier Trophy in 1993 for his efforts as Mission Director of the Hubble Telescope Repair Mission.
He was subsequently inducted into the Smithsonian’s Aviation Hall of Fame for his efforts as Program Manager of NASA’s International Space Station. Mr. Brinkley has also received the Space Achievement Award from the U.S. Space Foundation and also the Nelson P. Jackson Aerospace Award from the National Space Club.
The featured photo is of Secretary Lehman and Dragon at MAWTS-1. The photos below highlight moments in Dragon’s Marine Corps caraeer.