ABOARD USS BATAAN -- The AV-8B+ Harrier pilots of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) have been among the first Marines to see combat in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, America's ongoing campaign against the 'war on terrorism' in Afghanistan.
The Harriers have been flying regular offensive air support missions from the USS Bataan, the flagship of the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, since mid-November.
The Harriers from the 26th MEU's Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-365 (Reinforced) have been typically flying what is called an indirect tasking mission. After 'higher headquarters' approves the flight plan, the Harriers take off and report to an airborne controller, who usually assigns the aircraft to a holding pattern in the airspace over Afghanistan to wait for specific tasking.
"The guys who really deserve the credit are the [forward air controller] guys sitting out there in the middle of the desert," said Capt. Chris 'Wolfman' Raible, a Harrier pilot. The Pittsburgh Marine explained that these 'warriors' on the ground are forward air controllers or FACs.
"They often try to get us to perform reconnaissance on suspected targets," said Raible. "First, we receive and make a positive identification of their positions," he said. The FACs signal from the ground until the pilots see their position, which is aided with a latitude and longitude coordinate. Once the pilot has a positive ID of the FAC, the FAC will use the pilot as his 'eyes' above the battlefield.
Raible said a conversation might go something like this:
FAC: "Do you see the highway running east to west, three miles south of my position?"
Pilot: "Yes, I have 'eyes on.'"
FAC: "Are there any vehicles headed my way from the west?"
Pilot: "Roger, I see three vehicles moving your way from west to east."
The FAC then processes the information he receives from the pilot and forwards it to 'higher command' to wait for the possible 'go ahead' to destroy the target.
The FAC gathers information on enemy convoys, positions and strengths through a variety of intelligence resources, said Raible.
A sequence very similar to this took place on Capt. Nathan 'Yank' Berryman's first mission. Berryman, a Cherry Point, N.C., Harrier pilot, was flying in the same division as Raible.
"That's how I became the first VMA-223 pilot to drop a bomb in combat since 1969," said Berryman. Berryman's parent squadron, Marine Attack Squadron-223 attached six Harriers and nine pilots to HMM-365, giving the MEU commander a robust fixed-wing combat asset.
"It was near the end of a six-hour mission. We had 20 minutes left 'on station,'" said Berryman. "I was very surprised to hear the FAC clear us 'weapons-free' on those targets."
Before the Harriers attacked, the targets were cleared by two F-14D Tomcats using their thermal-imaging equipment to identify the target.
"A bomb can kill a lot of people," said Raible, "so as an attack guy, you have to have a 'warm and fuzzy' that they are the enemy."
That 'warm and fuzzy' was given by the Tomcat's ability to magnify the image of the target, which confirmed that it was in fact an enemy target.
At this point Berryman became concerned that the sun would come up before they could drop their ordnance. If this happened, the pilots would have had to fly without their night vision goggles, thus making it much harder to get a 'visual' on their target in the morning fog.
"The F-14s each made a pass destroying two of the vehicles in the convoy," said Berryman. "We coordinated with them so they could 'laze' [laser designate for guided bombs] the targets."
The Harriers ran bombing runs on the targets, separated by time, to give the Tomcat crew a chance to shift to the next target. This helped ensure multiple bombs wouldn't be dropped on an already destroyed target.
Berryman said that when he made his pass and released his bomb it was just as he had rehearsed so many times before.
Raible is also very serious about his job, and he and his fellow Harrier pilots have no second thoughts or reservations about performing it, he said.
Berryman said that performing these missions makes the pilots feel very proud, "... proud that the Marine Corps can provide this kind of support hundreds of miles from the ship."
Berryman said his ability to drop bombs on target begins long before he gets into the cockpit.
He said what makes it possible is "a lot of training and hard work by the mechanics that have our birds ready to go, by the ordnance shops who load the ordnance, and by the Marines and Sailors who work the flight deck the entire night."
"We load bombs, run fuses and make sure everything is 'good to go,'" said Cpl. John Cascamisi, an ordnance technician from Exeter, N.H. The Marine added that he and his Marines do extensive checks on the weapons systems before the pilots leave the deck.
Cascamisi explained in detail one of the most important systems, the release mechanism. When the hand of the pilot in the cockpit activates the release, an electric impulse flows to an explosive fuse called a 'CAD.' The 'CAD' sends a blast through a series of gas tubes, which pushes the bomb away from the aircraft.
"Otherwise, given the speed of flight, the bomb would just get carried back into the plane," said Lance Cpl. Corey M. McGann, ordnance technician and coincidentally, also a New Hampshire native.
McGann said no words could express the rush he felt the first time he saw one of his 'birds' fully loaded.
Describing his first time loading ordnance with his squadron, McGann said, "Guys like Cpl. Cascamisi ... you could tell they had experience and knew what to expect."
"But it feels good to see a 'bird' come back empty knowing that I did my job," said McGann.
Some of the reasons the Harriers are able to continue to fly are the mechanics that do the repairs and constantly check and recheck the engine and mechanical components.
"The operations tempo is up," said Staff Sgt. Vincent F. Young. "But the longer that they are flown, the better they seem to perform." The New York Marine added that just because the "birds" are performing better doesn't mean they are inspected less frequently. On the contrary, high "ops tempo" means greater opportunity for wear and the harder the Marines must work to keep their safety record high.
Young spoke on behalf of many Marines when he stated, "Things have kicked up a notch, but we're doing nothing different. We train for war everyday."
"I will ensure the aircraft are safe so they can get where they need to go to put bomb on target," said Young.
The Harrier pilots of the 26th MEU have truly operated at the "tip of the spear" and have done so much farther inland than MEU Marines traditionally operate; however, for the pilots and support crews alike, this is a team effort whose tangible results on the battlefield are the rich reward.