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Cpl. Joseph Aguon, a Marine Attack Squadron 513 ejection seat mechanic and Santa Rita, Guam, native, closes the hatch on an AV-8B Harrier at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. Ejection seat mechanics support the squadron’s aviation life support systems division.

Photo by Pfc. Sean Dennison

Life support at 10,000 feet: Marines on ground keep pilots breathing

30 Sep 2011 | Pfc. Sean Dennison

Flying more than 10,000 feet above Afghanistan, Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier attack jets operate at levels outside the range of virtually any weapon in insurgent hands.

At those altitudes, however, pilots face a different set of challenges: freezing temperatures and air too thin to breathe.

Ensuring pilots are able to safely and confidently command aircraft in the sky comes from the support of a handful of Marines on the ground.

Marine Attack Squadron 513’s aviation life support systems division has two different sets of Marines – those who ready the pilot’s flight equipment and those who ready the Harrier itself, should a pilot need to eject.

“In the division as a whole we guarantee that the pilot has proper equipment to fly and get in the jet. We also provide safe means of ejecting if needed,” explained Sgt. Steven Vladiff, a Marine Attack Squadron 513 aviation safety equipment mechanic and Monroeville, Ohio, native.

The role of the aviation life support systems Marines is almost exclusively preventive. Because these Marines do their jobs, the jet’s cockpit is at a comfortable temperature, the pilot has fresh oxygen to breathe, and he knows his safety equipment will work.

“We allow the pilot to operate at altitudes above 10,000 feet and keep him in a comfortable position,” said Staff Sgt. Christopher Del Valle, the Marine Attack Squadron 513 ejection seat shop staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge and Kenilworth, N.J., native. “If he’s too cold to think, he’s not going to be able to support the troops on the ground.”

The Marine Corps relies on the short take-off, vertical landing AV-8B Harrier to provide close-air support for coalition troops in Afghanistan’s Helmand and Nimruz provinces. Using guided bomb systems and other precision weapons, Harrier pilots are able to effectively quell insurgent fighting positions, vehicles and hideouts.

In addition to ensuring pilots are physically able to fight, the aviation life support systems Marines also support the Harrier squadron by providing instruments for survival.

The squadron’s flight equipment technicians provide pilots tools to save their own lives if need be. The palette of survival tools includes flares, knives, parachutes, water and a radio.

The radio allows the pilot to talk to a search and rescue team, explained Cpl. Ryan Ledbetter, flight equipment technician with the squadron and LaPlace, Ill., native. The gear is designed to allow a pilot to survive until help arrives.

“We deal with keeping pilots alive,” said Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Gendron, the Harrier squadron’s aviation life support systems division chief, a native of Cherry Hill, N.J. “There is no backup system for us. Our stuff has to work the first time, every time.”

“Especially in a combat zone, you have to make sure everything is on key,” added Cpl. Riley Peel, a Marine Attack Squadron 513 flight equipment technician and Pelham, Ga., native. “It’s a different mindset in out here, but with us, it’s always about saving lives.”

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