Plane captains ensure aircraft are safe to fly

27 Nov 2007 | Cpl. James B. Hoke

While flying aircraft and maintaining them can be daunting tasks, the responsibilities of being the last person to inspect an aircraft's well-being and to make the call as to whether it will fly or not falls on neither the pilots or the mechanics.

A few well-trained, confident-proven Marines, who go by the title of plane captains, have the duty of protecting the aircraft and pilots while they are flying missions in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq.

"The primary mission of a plane captain is to make sure that jet is safe when it goes up in the air," said Gunnery Sgt. Robert J. McQuilkin, powerline division chief, Marine Attack Squadron 211, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward). "The material condition of the jet has to be perfect for it to go flying, and it is our responsibility to make sure safety is not compromised."

"The plane captain is the final link in the chain of safety," said Capt. Greer C. Chambless, AV-8B Harrier pilot, VMA-211. "He's the guy who makes the go or no-go decision when we are getting ready to fly a mission. We rely heavily upon them and their intellects for the safety and full functioning of our aircraft."

Through the intimidating tasks of inspecting the planes before flight, as well as afterwards, these Marines are in charge of towing the aircraft, inspecting the fuel and oil, checking the security of the panels and airframe, and scrutinizing over the engines among several other things where safety could become a hazard.

"You have to have trust and confidence in your plane captain, and you have to know that he knows his job well," said Lance Cpl. Michael R. Smith, plane captain, VMA-311, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 165 (Reinforced), 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable). "It's a lot of responsibility. If something happens to that aircraft or pilot in flight, they are going to come back to the guy who did the inspections, so you have to be confident in what you do as a plane captain and make sure you do it right every time."

Although the plane captains in a single unit can range from six to a dozen Marines, they are sifted and sorted through to make sure that only the best can join their elite ranks and be weighted down with the responsibilities they face.

"The pride that goes along with being a plane captain and being responsible for a multi-million dollar aircraft that is flying missions here in Iraq is the best part about this job," said McQuilkin, a 35-year-old Lufkin, Texas, native. "When a new join arrives at our squadron and is interested in becoming a plane captain, he has to learn about all of the parts on the plane. After that, he goes through a selection board with five members who judge him. If he can't answer the questions asked or show confidence in his answers, he doesn't become a plane captain."

These Marines put 12 hard-working hours into their job, as they launch, land and inspect the planes that pass through their hands each day, and all are respected by those they work with and provide safety for.

"I have the deepest respect in the world for those Marines," said Chambless, an Albany, Ga., native. "They are some of the most-dedicated young men I've ever had the pleasure to work with. It's a pleasure to see them when we launch and when we come back from a flight. The level of -- if you want to call it -- customer service we get when we walk to the airplane is the best that I've ever seen in my entire career as an aviator."