MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. – Urgency is settling in as the Corps’ oldest aviation squadron, “the first and finest since 1919,” prepares its Marines and AV-8B Harriers for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.
It will be Marine Attack Squadron 231’s second trip to combat in Afghanistan and pending the 2014 withdrawal plan, the squadron could be the final Harrier assets in the war.
Their close-air support mission provides overhead firepower for troops on the ground, a role only possible with the squadron’s Harriers humming smoothly. This is a maintenance feat for the more than 30-year-old, multimillion dollar aircraft.
“Ultimately, we’re trying to get airplanes in the sky so pilots can go to combat,” said Master Sgt. William O. Fishback, maintenance chief for the squadron. “These guys trust us with their lives.”
The magnitude of the efforts hidden in the Harrier’s shadow is what Sgt. Maj. Dennis M. Bradley, the attack squadron’s senior enlisted leader and infantryman by trade, said he didn’t fully see. Before coming to the squadron, he’d only been on the receiving end of close-air support.
“I always knew what their role was as they were overhead supporting my Marines and me in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo,” said Bradley. “But it’s not just the pilot up there flying the jet, it’s all these enlisted Marine maintainers making sure these jets can get airborne when they’re needed most.“
“On time, on target,” Bradley said, quoting one of the squadron’s mottos.
In the Marine Corps, you’re either infantry or you’re supporting the infantry, and Bradley, an Oscoda, Mich., native, said his Marines know their role as a Marine attack squadron is to attack the enemy the infantry is fighting.
Most of the Marines in the squadron are in five-year enlistments, because of the amount of schooling, usually a year, the technical intricacies of their job requires. During this time they’re entrenched in research and reading maintenance manuals to learn everything going on with the aircraft when it’s flying.
On average, one hour of flight time requires 15 hours of maintenance time. This maintenance includes scheduled and repair of unplanned discrepancies, otherwise referred to as “gripes” by maintenance Marines, said Fishback, a Binghamton, N.Y., native.
At the mercy of a daily flight schedule, maintenance never really stops, which requires the Marines to work on aircraft around the clock, said Bradley.
The Marines are split into day and night shifts, spread throughout several sections specializing in different aspects of the Harrier – the U.S. military’s only actively employed hover-capable jet.
“The unique thing about it is, it only has one engine,” said Fishback. “But the hovering aspect adds a lot of extra mechanics, like nozzle work and rigging and chains and the different flight controls that go into it.”
Bradley said it boils down to five teams divvied throughout the squadron; ordnance, avionics, powerline, airframes and aviation life support. Each has a personality embodied by the nature of their job.
First – Ordnance Marines are responsible for anything on the aircraft that has to do with weapons, from the guns, to the bombs and the racks the bombs are mounted on.
Second – Avionics are responsible for the Harrier’s complicated electronic systems network, including communications and navigation.
Third – Powerline, which handles the launching and recovery of aircraft, as well as the engine maintenance and fueling.
Fourth – Airframes Marines maintain the “skin” of the aircraft and corrosion. The effects that sand and moisture from the elements have on the aircraft make this a full-time job.
Fifth – Aviation life support systems, or in other words, holders of a pilot’s saving grace. They maintain the aircraft ejection seat, parachute harness, oxygen and other emergency survival gear.
Though all of these Marines are split into their specific sections, Bradley said they don’t hesitate to lend each other a helping hand to accomplish the mission, which will be all-important while they are in Afghanistan.
“We have a lot of young Marines in this squadron who have never deployed, but we have plenty in the squadron who have,” Bradley explained. “The experienced guys are passing on to the younger ones, ‘Hey, when you go down range and the pilots have the aircraft in the fight supporting that Marine on the ground in Helmand province, it’s our responsibility to have that aircraft ready.’
“That’s why we say ‘on time, on target.”
Editor's Note:This is the first installment in a 4-part series on the Marines of the Corps’ oldest aviation squadron, Marine Attack Squadron 231, ‘the first and the finest since 1919.’ The squadron is preparing to deploy with its AV-8B Harriers to Afghanistan, and in preparation they will head to California for Enhanced Mojave Viper next month. The Marines know their role as a Marine attack squadron is to attack the enemy the infantry is fighting. That’s why they say, ‘on time, on target.’