KAWAIHAE — With a roar of four jet engines, the amphibious vessel’s rubber bags fill with air, quickly lifting the 87-foot monstrosity 6 feet off the ground.
The U.S. Navy LCAC seemingly floats over the sand, kicking up a cloud of dust and mist as the hovercraft’s massive propellers spin, allowing it to turn on a pivot and make its way into the water at Kawaihae Harbor to gather soldiers and equipment from the USS Bonhomme Richard sitting some 3-5 miles offshore.
“We call it flying,” said Navy Singer Chief Nathan Bricker, an LCAC (short for Landing Craft Air Cushion) pilot, or flight master.
But it’s not the same as with an airplane where wing span and surface is use to create lift allowing the craft to fly.
“We’re not like that, we have big fans that are turning, that are creating thrust to push us up in the air,” he explained.
Those fans pump out over a million cubic feet of air per second, “basically a Category 5 hurricane,” that pushes the amphibious vessel over land and through water, all the while carrying up to 60 tons of cargo, troops or refugees.
The LCAC was one of two high-speed, fully amphibious hovercraft taking part in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises on Friday in the waters off South Kohala. The morning was spent transporting Marines and equipment — including large trucks — from the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship to the harbor. From there, they convoyed some 47 miles to Pohakuloa Training Area for training.
This year, RIMPAC, which continues through Aug. 2, comprises some 26 nations, 47 surface ships, five submarines, 18 national land forces, and more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel.
The biennial exercises, which take place in and around the Hawaiian Islands and Southern California, provide a unique training opportunity designed to foster and sustain cooperative relationships that are critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world’s oceans, according to the U.S. Navy Indo-Pacific Command.
“The importance of RIMPAC to PTA is really demonstrated in the multilateral, combined, international presence that is training there right now. When you have 26 nations participating in an exercise, many of them on the ground at PTA, you see the dynamic interaction between forces and that training is absolutely invaluable to our service members and frankly to our nation,” said PTA Commander Lt. Col. Loreto V. Borce.
“It also speaks to the capacity that Pohakuloa Training Area has here on Hawaii Island to facilitate this high level of training on an multilateral basis,” he added. “And whether it’s on land or sea or air, PTA provides the capabilities for the thousands of service members training to hone their skills.”
Though used for wartime, the LCACs come in handy during peacetime, as well. In the event of a natural disaster or refugee situation, the craft can be used to aid in evacuation. Each can also be transformed into a hospital capable of handling 53 patients on gurneys, or litters.
“They can come on land, which means we can get supplies to help very, very quickly,” Bricker said.
Friday’s training followed a Thursday incident in which an Indonesian military vessel apparently dropped anchor not far offshore of Kawaihae, possibly damaging coral and disturbing fishing grounds known to attract opelu and akule and bottom fish, according to Jojo Tanimoto, vice chairperson of the Big Island Aha Moku Council.
Tanimoto, who represents the Kohala moku, or district, also noted concerns over maneuvers in the near-shore areas affecting the fishing grounds and the spray generated by the vessels that coats area residences.
Contacted by Tanimoto, state Rep. Cindy Evans (D-North Kona, South Kohala) said she reached out Borce, commander at PTA, who worked the channels to get to the right person to have the vessel moved away from the coast. Evans herself went to the harbor, telling West Hawaii Today the following day that “They were too close, they should have not have been less than 3 miles from the shoreline and they were really close.”
Borce was present Friday to ensure all regulations were followed, noting the service members were doing a “fabulous job.”
With the situation rectified, Evans said her next step is to reach out the DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources to make sure the fishing grounds, or ko ‘a, are on maritime charts to prevent future incidents.
“We’re going to have to look at the shoreline and figure out the designation for the protected area and make sure it’s on the charts. If it’s on the charts, then anybody should see this is an area you shouldn’t go into,” said Evans. “We should go back and review the charts and make sure they reflect this. We need to at least make sure.”
Also present during Friday’s training were members of the public who called themselves “protectors,” or kiai. They had been unaware of the planned training, but spent the morning observing the activities taking place at Kawaihae while spending time with family making ulu poi. They discussed how the military negatively impacts themselves, their families and all of Hawaii.
One of those present was Joe Kassel, a naturopathic practitioner and acupuncturist, who said the billions of dollars spent on the “military-industrial Congressional complex” is a waste and that those funds could be better spent elsewhere, such as on education, housing and hospitals.
“This is a dog and pony show to show what we can do,” he said of the display taking place at Kawaihae.