Despite the recent groundings of the Harrier, a detachment of newer AV-8B II Harriers in Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 161 (Rein) is proving the aircraft still has what it takes to be at the tip of the spear.
The Marine Corps grounded all of its Vertical/Short Takeoff and Landing jets July 12 due to problems with the main engine bearing said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Bruce Jones, a 37-year-old AV-8B maintenance material control officer from Orlando, Fla.
This grounding initially included all of HMM-161's Harriers.
The 13th MEU(SOC) was going to leave without the fixed-wing close air support of its aviation combat element because of the grounding, until three days before the deployment, CWO2 Jones said. Headquarters Marine Corps issued a statement explaining exactly what was wrong with the bearings and that some of the newer jets were allowed to fly. Thirty percent of the Corps' fleet of AV-8B IIs had a slightly different engine configuration and were not affected by the restrictions.
The Marines immediately transferred jets from squadrons within Marine Air Group 13, under the direction of Col. David Buland, MAG-13 commanding officer. Four of the newer-model Harriers were relocated from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., directly to USS Tarawa to replace the grounded ones.
"Squadrons often swap aircraft," CWO2 Jones said. "We don't like to do it, but sometimes we have to in order to accomplish the mission."
In this case, the mission was to deploy six active Harriers with the 13th MEU(SOC). "It is important to have the offensive close air support whenever the MEU commander needs it," Jones said. "We need to be there waiting for his call."
When the detachment's Marines found out they would be leaving, they only had a few days to replace four planes. There was an incredible amount of work to be done, said Capt. Daniel Rose, the powerline officer-in-charge.
"We had to pack up all the Harriers that were going out, along the way making sure each part was packed separately, properly and in good condition," explained the 30-year-old native of Plano, Texas. "At the same time, we had incoming planes that had to be inspected to make sure they were in good condition. Everything going in and out had to be worked on. It got to the point where we were borrowing tools and fluids from other squadrons to be able to complete all our tests."
The Marines had a lot of personal things to take care of despite all the work on the planes. Before they left Aug. 14, they had to get all their personal gear ready and make last-minute preparations. Marines from all over MAG-13, especially those in HMM-161's Harrier detachment, worked around the clock for the three days to make the unit deployable. Meanwhile, everyone else in the MEU(SOC) spent those last few days saying goodbye to their families.
"There were Marines that missed out on valuable family time in those last three days before we left," said SSgt. David Hayes, a 33-year-old maintenance control staff noncommissioned officer from Columbus, Ohio.
Even though there is the desire to send the AV-8Bs out to all deployed MEU(SOC)s, the last time a West Coast Harrier detachment deployed was over a year ago, Jones said. Availability is the only reason Harriers would not deploy.
"In the 12 years I have been working with Harriers, the Marine Corps has grounded them about five or six times," Jones said.
"The Harrier is a complex piece of gear," said Capt. Rose, also a AV-8B II pilot. "We have been having a lot of problems with it in the past two years. Most of the groundings we have are precautionary measures. Since our plane is a single-engine aircraft, unlike most other jets that have two engines, we don't have the privilege of using our spare to land if one goes bad. If our one engine goes bad -- we crash, so we have to be a lot more careful when we decide if we can fly or not."
The Harrier has three to four more Class A mishaps than any other aircraft, said Jones. But that doesn't apply to HMM-161. The squadron has flown 208 missions for 280.1 flight hours without any mishaps during the deployment.
The missions included air-to-air and air-to-ground training in Hawaii and Australia as well as combat air patrols off the coast of East Timor during the 13th MEU(SOC) humanitarian assistance operation in September.
While underway, the pilots also completed 202 day and 84 night landings. They also practice flying low altitude courses, which take them through certain flight patterns 500 feet above sea level.
This jet is nearing the end of its lifespan, Jones said. It is expected to stay in service until the new Joint Strike Fighter is brought in, possibly by 2008. But until the Harrier retires, improvements and upgrades are constantly being made to the aircraft.
Radar technology brought over from the FA-18 Hornet, modified for use with the V-STOL aircraft, is one of the biggest improvements, Capt. Rose said. The 13th MEU(SOC)'s detachment was the first West Coast MEU(SOC) equipped with this technology, and HMM-161 pilots have already flown 189.1 flight hours in the four radar-equipped Harriers.
This radar gives the pilots a wider range of view when in the air, said Jones. It's like having rear view mirrors on the airplane.
Radar also helps aim the bombs and missiles launched from the aircraft, he said. The munitions are much more accurate when the radar is locked on the target.
"Even though this is a new system for the AV-8B, the pilots have been practicing on simulators for about 8 months," Jones said. "They have become pretty proficient flying with it. They have fun practicing now by locking (the radar) onto each other during maneuvers from the ship."
Infused with new technology and the spirit of texamwork, the Marines of HMM-161's Harrier detachment have proven that Harriers are capable of still getting the job done safely. They also help keep the 13th MEU(SOC) at the top of their game by constantly providing close air support to the commander.