Marine Corps Air ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif. --
The F/A-18 is able to be configured for a variety of operations to meet mission requirements. The aircraft can conduct fighter escort, enemy air defense suppression, reconnaissance, air control and close air support - the calling card of Marine aviation. Its versatile nature makes it an indispensible instrument to the Marine Corps, but it comes with a heavy price tag.
These multipurpose assets are incredibly advanced and each cost millions of dollars to manufacture. The responsibility in maintaining these aircraft and keeping them in the air is entrusted to the Marines geared up in the cockpit and the ones on the flight line, tools in hand.
IN THE COCKPIT
The F/A-18 pilots are the Marines who control these complex aircraft and their training and education is very extensive.
The bar is set high for those with dreams of becoming F/A-18 pilots. The four-year degree required by commissioned Marines gets their foot in the door, but in order to become pilots they must also show their potential in the job field. Future pilots must do well on the Aviation Selection Test Battery, an aviation aptitude test, as well as meet certain physical requirements specific to their job.
“You have to have decent vision although that is correctable these days, and standard physical fitness required of a Marine officer,” said Capt. Michael Huck, assistant operations officer, VMFA-314. “Specific to the fighter units is the G tolerance, the ability to handle the high (gravitational forces) of a fighter aircraft.”
If they meet all the standards required of Marine pilots, the officers move on to the Naval flight school for two years and earn their wings. After their school, they are assigned to fleet replacement replace meant squadrons, where they get 100 hours of flight time in the F/A-18 before they in they join the fleet squadron.
The pilot’s training in the fleet is continuous. They are required to meet annual minimums, which are usually broken down into monthly and weekly, to keep up their training.
“We tend to fly maybe three days a week,” Huck said. “The other days are studying our ground jobs and simulators.”
These ground jobs help keep up operations within the squadrons and can range from working in maintenance to operations and logistics, where they plan and coordinate all the squadron movements.
If they are not providing support for the squadron, these pilots continue their training by hitting the books or the getting into the simulators to maintain their skills sharp.
“Outside of the cockpit, we’re either studying our tactics or the basic capabilities of the jet,” Huck said. “We also spend a lot of time in the simulators.”
Pilots take on a heavy responsibility every time they step into the jet. They take this responsibility seriously inside and out of the aircraft to ensure they are at the top of their game and able to do what is required.
“It’s definitely a job that comes with a lot of responsibility, but if you have the dedication it takes to do this job, it probably means you love doing it a lot,” Huck said. “So all that responsibility just kind of comes with going out there every day and doing what you love.”
in THE HANGAR
Every time the F/A-18 flies over the hangar, the roar of the twin-engines echoes against the walls. Inside, Marines toil away on maintaining and repairing the same jets that fly overhead.
Some of the Marines in the hangar aren’t old enough to drink, yet they are responsible for multi-million dollar aircraft and the lives of the pilots who fly them. It’s a responsibility they take seriously.
“You are in charge of that jet,” said Lance Cpl. Ian Bennett, power line mechanic, VMFA 314. “You write your name on it and say it’s safe to put someone in and fly off.”
After every flight, these Marines inspect, wash and fuel the jets. They do what they need to prevent and daily wear and tear, to expand the lifespan of the million-dollar planes.
The prerequisites to work on the jets do not require more than high school degree and less than less than a year of aircraft mechanical training, but most of their training comes on the job, according to Bennett.
“When I came to the fleet I thought I knew a good bit about the aircraft, but not at all,” Bennett said. “A lot of it is on-the-job training. I’m constantly learning. Literally, everyday it’s something knew.”
During deployments the Marines work twelve hours on and twelve off, but in the rear a night crew can work fourteen to fifteen hours.
“Pretty much every day you set the jets up , get them ready for flight,” Bennett said. “Send them out and when they come back you do your inspection. Say during the inspection, something has happened you just address it from that point.”
They work as long as needed to make sure these aircraft last long and are properly maintained.
There may be a gap between the amount of training for the marines in the cockpit and those in the hangar, but they are two sides of the same coin. The combination of knowledge and skill between these Marines creates a working cycle that maintains these aircraft. They are trained and entrusted to them by the Marine Corps to keep the jets flying and in the fight.