MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. -- The AV-8B Harrier redefined the capabilities of Marine attack aircraft when it entered service in the 1980s. Featuring vertical or short takeoff and landing capabilities, the Harrier meets the operational requirements of Marine Corps forces across the world.
In order to keep the renowned aircraft mission ready, every inch of the 46-foot long aircraft must be meticulously maintained by Marines who know its structure inside and out – the Harrier aircraft maintainers.
Seat mechanics with Marine Attack Training Squadron 203 maintain flight equipment so student pilots can successfully and safely learn to fly the AV-8B Harrier before joining an operational squadron.
“We give the pilots a sense of reassurance by ensuring all the safety features are free of malfunctions and by having pride in what we do ,” said Sgt. Stuart Vonderheide, an ejection seat mechanic with VMAT-203.
Maintainers with the squadron ensure all parts of the training aircraft are operational, including ejection seats and cockpit canopies. The Marines ensure all onboard electronics and communication equipment function before and after flight, including the air system that provides oxygen to the pilot and cools aircraft components, according to Vonderheide.
“We regulate and condition air on board the aircraft and distribute it to all the avionics systems,” said Vonderheide. “The oxygen comes from the engine. The air is compressed at high volumes at temperatures ranging from 600 to 800 degrees Celsius. The air system cools and distributes the air to the pilot as oxygen.”
The maintenance mission of the squadron depends on the oversight of noncommissioned officers and the Marines they oversee each day. Experience and leadership abilities give the NCOs of the squadron a chance to prepare their junior Marines for greater responsibility, according to Vonderheide.
“As a sergeant, I oversee, instruct and advise the junior Marines on aircraft maintenance. I show them how to do it if they don’t understand,” said Vonderheide. “I like teaching the younger Marines ways to get the job done, which makes the job a little bit easier for everyone.”
The squadron’s NCOs constantly work to ensure the aircraft are ready for flight, according to Lance Cpl. Michael Villamiel, an ejection seat mechanic with VMAT-203. The junior Marines learn from the Marines that have come before them, which increases unit cohesion and builds unit morale.
“We all work together to support one mission,” said Villamiel. “When that mission is complete we all feel a sense of accomplishment because we all helped in some way to complete that mission. We all help protect the lives of the student pilots that train at this squadron.”