KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan --
Unsightly sweat stains mark another Afghan day for Lance Cpl. Joseph Gonzalez, but appearances are the farthest thing from his mind. Beneath the implacable sun, it’s his charge to ensure the AV-8B Harrier in front of him is ready for take-off.
Gonzalez, a Marine Attack Squadron 513 powerline plane captain and Pasadena, Texas, native, goes through preflight inspection with the pilot, making sure all flight controls are operational.
Other Marines with the “Flying Nightmares” squadron watch Gonzalez from the sidelines. The Harrier getting ready to launch is indicative that all present, and those in the hangar, have done their jobs.
“It feels amazing,” said Gonzalez as the jet he just checked taxies toward the runway. “Doing my part – it feels amazing.”
Since their touchdown in Afghanistan May 16, Nightmare maintainers, comprised of avionics, ordnance and flight equipment technicians, and airframes and powerline mechanics, have kept busy providing near-constant maintenance on the squadron’s Harriers. All maintenance ultimately goes toward supporting NATO International Security Assistance Force operations in southwestern Afghanistan.
The 12-hour shifts and lack of weekends are, for the most part, a far cry from the usual schedules the troops held at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., but this is a deployment, and the Marines know adjusting to a more demanding schedule is just one of many challenges that come.
Accepting the challenges.
“The main challenge is adapting to the environment and the weather, being in a different country, away from home,” said Cpl. Michael Prince, a VMA-513 powerline plane captain and Battle Creek, Mich., native. “This is my second deployment, so it’s a bit easier being away from my family and friends.”
And then there’s the Harrier itself.
“From a management aspect, each aviation squadron is very similar to how they run things,” said Master Sgt. Timothy Saunders, the VMA-513 maintenance chief and Jacksonville, N.C., native. “From a maintainer’s aspect, it’s a completely different animal. There are very specific things that need to be done on the aircraft by qualified Marines, and if that Marine doesn’t have the qualifications, he cannot do that step.”
Saunders, who began his career with the CH-53 Sea Stallion’s T-64 engine, referred to the Harrier’s defining characteristic.
“We bring a very specific capability in terms of being a [Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing] aircraft,” he said. “We are not confined to a runway. They can pretty much take off where they want.”
Though the scenery may be similar, the NATO International Security Assistance Force operations Harriers support in Afghanistan are vastly different than the usual flight missions that take place over Yuma. Perhaps the most dramatic change is the fact that U.S., Afghan and coalition troops are on the ground, and the live ordnance delivered by Harrier pilots in Afghanistan target insurgents and their equipment.
“Back in the rear, we’re hitting wooden tank targets, here we’re hitting enemies,” said Prince.
Life and death.
How and how quickly an issue is dealt with can directly affect whether or not coalition members continue to fight, a fact lost on none of the Nightmares.
“Marines are out there getting shot at,” said Staff Sgt. James Seigfried, the VMA-513 avionics noncommissioned officer in charge and Rosamond, Calif., native. “If there’s anything I can do to protect them, I will.”
The attack squadron Marines said even if they don’t share an operating base or combat outpost with their Marine infantry brothers, every turn of a wrench, flight power test or ordnance attachment is testament to a maintainer’s devotion to the fight.
Whether it’s avionics dealing with powering the Harrier, airframes working out hydraulic issues, powerline sprucing up the engines, ordnance strapping on bombs or flight equipment working within the cockpit of the jet, getting the Harrier off the ground requires steady coordination between the shops.
“Everyone’s job is equal to the next,” said Seigfried. “My job to supervise and train is just as important as the guy handing the tools down. And that goes to all the maintainers and other shops.”
“Every shop has its own specialization,” said Prince, reiterating Seigfried’s sentiments. “One shop can’t function without the other. We all come together to support each other and help each other out.”