AL ASAD, Iraq -- High above the Iraqi desert, fuel-thirsty jets can stay airborne for hours, in part because of the enlisted Marines manning an orbiting gas station in the sky.
Crew chiefs and aerial observers with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, are critical to the readiness of Marine aviation in Iraq.
Flying aboard a KC-130J Hercules aircraft laden with thousands of gallons of fuel, the Marines are responsible for the safe and expedient delivery of fuel to F/A-18 Hornets and AV-8B Harrier jets thousands of feet above the desert below.
Marines arrive to their workspace hours ahead of the mission to begin their preflight duties before the actual refueling can begin.
"One of us conducts a simple visual inspection of the outside of the aircraft and cargo area while another checks the aircraft systems inside the cockpit," said Sgt. James C. Curtis, a crew chief and Olympia, Wash., native.
Responsibility for checking on the plane's flight status lies in their hands, but the modest Marines give the credit to the mechanics in the squadron for the Hercules being in tiptop shape.
"The maintainers do all the work, we're just the last ones to check on the plane," said Cpl. Robert C. Lynall, crew chief and Peoria, Ill., native. "They get no glory, but when there's a problem, we simply tell them and they take care of it."
With a Hercules topped off with fuel, three enlisted crew members, two crew chiefs and a loadmaster, are joined by the two pilots for their multiple-hour flight.
"Once we take off, we're the eyes of the pilots for everything to the rear of the cockpit," said Cpl. Adam Palmer, a loadmaster and West Palm Beach, Fla., native. "We're always on the lookout for any threats to the aircraft, ready to trigger the countermeasures and instruct the pilots to maneuver."
After ascending to a set altitude, the Hercules cruises through the sky, waiting for the jets to pull in for an aerial refueling.
The pilots and crew keep in constant communication during the aerial refueling process, making it a complete team effort.
There are two major concerns during aerial refueling: a hose breaking and "swapping paint," meaning a collision. According to Lynall, preventing the damage caused in either case is a good example of how they work together during aerial refueling.
"I run the aerial refueling panel in the cockpit, monitoring the flow of fuel to the jet linked to us," said Lynall. "If one of the guys in the back calls out that the hose broke, then I immediately shut off the fuel flow and our pilots relay the message to the jet pilot telling him to break away immediately."
Instances of these emergency procedures are rare, but the crew is always ready, commented Palmer.
"Our mission is fairly routine, mainly aerial refueling and a little cargo transport. The toughest thing is probably the schedule," said Palmer. "We work 12 to14-hour shifts, but the show times can be day or night depending on when people need us."
Despite the long, changing hours and a mission that is seemingly routine, the enlisted crew revels in their duties.
"This job kicks butt! There's always something different, like the weather, when we go up," said Lynall. "We're not over tasked, but we are definitely busy."