AL ASAD, Iraq -- With ground crew running around it, their flashlights bobbing and weaving like fireflies on a hot summer's night, the pilot in jet number nine shut it's engine down completing a record-setting combat mission.
Nearly 16 years has passed since Marine Attack Squadron 223, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, recorded a Class A mishap. During a combat mission over Iraq Feb. 10, the AV-8B Harrier surpassed the 60,000 Class A mishap-free hours mark.
The milestone builds upon what has been an already successful period of time for VMA-223. As the top Marine aviation squadron, the Bulldogs were presented the 2005 Pete Ross Safety Award for exceptional achievements in safety on Oct. 15, the first time ever for a Harrier squadron, leading Marine aviation by incorporating Operational Risk Management practices into every facet of squadron life.
"Our priority is neither mission first, nor safety first, but safe missions, always," said Lt. Col. Andrew G. Shorter, commanding officer, VMA-223. "Some of it's good piloting, but I can't overemphasize the importance of the maintenance side of the squadron."
Arriving here in August 2005, the squadron continued the safe flying trend established and carried out through years of flying from their home, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., and numerous exercises worldwide.
As a result of an increased operational tempo in support of ground operations, the Bulldogs' aircraft are flown at three times their normal monthly rate.
According to Shorter, a policy of empowered leadership throughout the ranks, attention to detail and the application of ORM have continued the strong Bulldog safety record.
The wrench turning junior Marines and noncommissioned officers of the maintenance department have kept the Harriers flying right, despite the increased hours and strain on the aircraft.
"Yes, we work a lot. Twelve hours on and 12 hours off, but everything repaired undergoes a double-check by another Marine to make sure it's good," said Lance Cpl. Jeromy L. Artz, an airframe mechanic and Morrisville, Mo., native. "With as many hours that we're flying, the wings and engines need continuous maintenance done correctly the first time."
The message of doing the maintenance job right continually echoed throughout the maintenance department's Marines.
"It takes the entire maintenance department doing the job right the first time to make this happen. Sometimes, it is difficult getting parts at Al Asad, so we have to go out and find them somewhere," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Craig L. Beasley, maintenance control officer. "It is the mind-set of the Marines that make it work. They don't want to see their work fail, especially with the missions we fly supporting the Marines on the ground."
Together the Marines of VMA-223, having flown 60,000 mishap-free hours, continue to follow through on their commanding officer's safety policy, which states, "Our mission is to support the Marine Air Ground Task Force commander by destroying or defeating surface targets or escorting friendly aircraft day or night, under all weather conditions during expeditionary, joint or combined operations by providing - ready people, ready planes, ready pilots."
"This is a high-water mark for the Harrier. We've come a long way, the first Harrier squadron to win the Ross award and now 60,000 hours mishap free," said Shorter, a Melbourne Fla., native. "It's not just us though, the whole Harrier community has succeeded."