The Marine Corps has begun decommissioning several Oahu-based helicopters as it restructures its force, including AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters that only began arriving on the island three years ago. The Vipers are being dismantled at the military’s aircraft boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.

The Marines announced in March that they would remove all their helicopter units from Marine Corps Base Hawaii on Kaneohe Bay as part of a broad restructuring of the Marine Corps that’s starting in Hawaii and is intended to reshape the force by 2030.

That means scrapping the $31 million Vipers and $21.6 million UH-1Y Venom helicopters despite the fact that many of the aircraft are relatively new and had been expected to remain in operation for many more years.

The Marines are also in the process redeploying their fleet of much older CH-53E Super Stallions to the Japanese island of Okinawa, where they’ll remain active.

An AH-1Z Viper is prepped for long term storage this month at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. Courtesy: U.S. Air Force/2021

Both the Vipers and Venoms are upgraded versions of Bell helicopters that were heavily used during the Vietnam War. The Vipers replaced the AH-1W Super Cobras that had been used for more than three decades in Hawaii and the transition was only completed in 2019.

A Marine Corps press release from 2017, when Kaneohe received its first Vipers, proudly proclaimed that “the arrival of the fourth generation attack helicopters enhances the capabilities and power projection” of forces in Hawaii.

Less than a year after the last Super Cobra was decommissioned, Hawaii’s Vipers are joining them in the boneyard. The Marine Corps began purchasing Vipers in 2010.

The UH-1Y Venoms, transport and utility helicopters also known as “Super Hueys,” are an upgrade of the classic Vietnam-era airframe immortalized in the public imagination by films like “Apocalypse Now.” 

Originally, the Venoms were going to be “remanufactured” by using existing Huey airframes to save on costs, but in 2005 the Pentagon got permission to build them as new helicopters in hopes they would last longer. Bell delivered two Venoms to the Marine Corps in 2008 and by 2014 the remaining Huey’s were retired. 

The Air Force hauled the first batch of CH-53E Super Stallions off the island in March, and the rest are expected to be gone by October, Stars and Stripes reported.  

The Stallions are the Marine Corps oldest and largest aircraft, having been in service since the 1980s. They have one of the patchiest safety records of any helicopter in service. In January 2016, two Kaneohe based CH-53Es collided, killing 12 Marines.

U.S. Marines with Marine Light Helicopter Attack Squadron 367 operate an AH-1Z Viper and UH-1Y Venom during a joint maritime strike exercise with U.S. Navy Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 37 over Pacific Missile Range Facility, Hawaii, June 9, 2020. HMLA-367 and HSM-37 conducted the training to exercise sea control and sea denial operations. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jacob Wilson)
A Marine Corps AH-1Z Viper and UH-1Y Venom participate in a joint exercise with the Navy off the coast of Kauai in June 2020. Courtesy: Jacob Wilson/USMC/2020

Loud military flights have long drawn complaints from many Hawaii residents. But the departure of the helicopters doesn’t mean Oahu’s Marines are done flying.

The military plans to increases its emphasis on “tilt-rotor” MV-22 Ospreys, which have the characteristics of both a helicopter and a plane that enable the aircraft to take off and land vertically while traveling longer distances.

But the Osprey is also controversial. In May 2015 an Osprey crashed on Oahu when a cloud of dust and sand caused an engine malfunction, killing two Marines and wounding everyone else on board. The Marine Corps publicly blamed pilot error, but also quietly updated its flight procedures. Internal documents noted long-held concerns about the vulnerability of the Osprey’s engine.

The Marines also hope to bring more KC-130J tanker planes to refuel the Ospreys mid-flight as they haul troops around the region for training. The Marines are also getting new missile-armed Reaper drones. 

The changes are part of a massive restructuring that will see several thousand Marines sent from Okinawa to bases in Guam and Hawaii. Marines on Oahu are also getting new ballistic missile artillery and war ships for island fighting. Some question whether the Marines’ facilities in Hawaii will be able to accommodate these ambitious changes so quickly.

While the Marines will continue using Vipers and Venoms elsewhere, the technology news website The Drive estimated that scrapping Hawaii’s 27 AH-1Zs and 26 UH-1Ys will shrink their fleets by around 18% and 22%, respectively.

But the boneyard at Davis-Monthan isn’t a trash heap. The Vipers and Venoms are being stripped for spare parts, and the air frames will be mothballed at the Arizona facility according to the Air Force — in case the military changes its mind again and decides to bring them back.

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