24 MEU (SOC) Harrier detachment "flies the paint off planes" in Rota

29 Sep 2002 | Gunnery Sgt. Mike Dougherty

By taking their AV-8B Harrier II Plus detachment ashore in Rota, Spain, Marines of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) increased their fixed-wing flight operations and maintenance tempo tenfold so far this deployment. The single-seat fighters logged more than 120 flight hours during a two-week stay at Naval Station Rota and were able to train with their Spanish counterparts. During the trip to Spain across the Atlantic, the six-jet detachment logged approximately 12 hours in flight due to poor weather, so when the MEU's main body departed for Operation Dynamic Response in Kosovo and the Harrier detachment was able to remain in Rota, it was a needed boost to their operational tempo. "It's not just the for the pilots; everybody's getting more training and experience here," said Sgt. Justin Fera, a maintenance controller. The group of 85 Marines and one Navy corpsman worked in shifts most days from as early as 0600 to as late as 0400 the following day, enabling nine pilots to fly six jets an average of 12 sorties a day. The pilots practiced aerial combat maneuvering over a number of ranges, both in the station's airspace and over the Atlantic, according to Maj. Fred Schenk, pilot and Weapons and Tactics Instructor. The ground-based training complemented the shipboard experience gained crossing the Atlantic, and provided some valuable contrasts in addition to the increase in flight hours, Schenk said. Training over land enables the pilots to practice above ranges with tangible targets, preparing them for close-air support operations. While training sorties launched from the flight deck of the USS Nassau prepare them for air-to-air combat, there's an obvious lack of ground targets on the open seas. As an added benefit, the pilots were able to train with Harrier pilots from Spanish forces based in Rota. Typically, Spanish Harrier pilots receive their initial flight training from Marines in Cherry Point, but that doesn't mean they weren't able to help the Marines increase their proficiency during their stay in Spain. "Anytime you fly with other (foreign counterparts) you gain experience and information by doing so," Schenk said. Marines on the detachment, ranging from pilots to mechanics, said the greatest training value of their stay in Rota was the substantial increase in flight opportunities. "If you're flying two sorties a day, overall, the comfort level with the aircraft goes way up," said Schenk. "There was no surge, and no under-flying. It was a well-sustainable tempo, for everybody" he said. Schenk and others cited the unique nature of the aircraft as the hidden variable in the sustainable tempo equals combat readiness equation. "If you don't fly the jets, they break," said Schenk. Conversely, if the jets are flown too much, they also break, he added. Therefore, it's important to fly the aircraft with a certain degree of regularity. "It's like a computer that sits for a long time. If you go to fire it up, it takes forever to warm up," said Sgt. Robert Wisner, avionics chief. On the sensitive avionics systems, moisture builds up inside them when they are idle. When they are finally activated, the number of "gripes," or maintenance discrepancies skyrockets, he said. Through routine usage, the systems are kept at the ready at all times, making the aircraft stronger and more reliable, like a physically fit Marine on the day of a PFT, he added. The steady training was conducted with the assistance of a number of support personnel from Naval Station, Rota, said Maj. Brian Zacherl, the detachment's officer-in-charge. "The support was great; folks on the station have done everything they could to help us - even units that have nothing to do with (our mission)," he said. Next stop for the detachment is Decimomannu, Italy, on the Island of Sardinia. There, the Marines of the detachment will train alongside U.S. Air Force F-16 Eagles and with their Italian Harrier squadron counterparts before rejoining the main body of the MEU.