Photo Information

A pilot helmet sits on the flight line before combat operations at Al Asad, Iraq, Sept. 23.

Photo by Lance Cpl. Nikki M. Fleming

Daily life as a combat fixed-wing pilot

1 Oct 2006 | Lance Cpl. Nikki M. Fleming 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing

A pilot's life is portrayed as exhilarating in movies such as "Top Gun." Their training consists of entertaining, simulated combat situations and aerial techniques that take them further and faster than reality's limit. In the skies of Iraq, a pilot's flying life becomes much more tedious as he has to focus on the real task at hand.

"Our main mission in Iraq is close-air support for coalition forces," said Capt. Aaron McGrew, Hornet pilot with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251, Carrier Air Wing One, Carrier Strike Group Twelve. "We provide aid and assistance for those Marines and troops on the ground."

For pilots, their days vary depending on the flight schedule. One could say, a pilot's day is anything but routine.

"Some days I fly during the early afternoon and some days I may fly until 4 a.m. the next morning," explained McGrew, a native of Bowdon, Ga. "I plan my day around flying. I try to schedule in activities, like physical training each day, take some time to write a letter or read a book and take care of anything related to my ground job."

An average scheduled flight takes about 11 hours to plan, execute and de-brief.

"Prior to launching, pilots make final preparations for the mission of the day and sit through a pre-flight brief," said Capt. Bill Harvey, Hornet pilot with VMFA-251.

Briefs prior to launching explain the mission of the flight. Pilots discuss tactical administration and their mission. Each topic focal point may even go down to the slightest detail of any possible situation in flight.

"Our missions are becoming more complex with the advent of new weapons systems and as we adapt to an enemy who changes his tactics," said Harvey. "The briefs help us mentally prepare for the missions by allowing us to rehearse each phase of the mission."

The adrenaline rush of take-off becomes one of the few thrills of being a pilot during combat operations in Iraq, as duty calls for focus and importance.

"Inside the cockpit, it's uncomfortable," said McGrew. "The ejection seat has no padding. It feels like my office. I know where every switch is and what it feels like, so I don't have to look around for it. You get used to doing everything while flying, but you are definitely ready to get out of the cockpit at the end of a long mission. It's a little price to pay to support our Marines and troops."

While flying through the Iraqi skies for numerous hours, only one thing stays on a pilot's mind -- mission execution.

"I'm constantly thinking about what I need to do now or plan to do to achieve mission success," said McGrew. "In aviation, you really need to be three steps ahead of what you are executing at the current time. Things that come to mind are; if someone starts to shoot at me, how am I going to respond? How much fuel do I have? When is my next time to go get fuel? The wingman? Who am I supporting next? While doing all of this, we are looking for threats, the enemy and a litany of other things."

As the tires hit the ground and the jet pulls into the taxiway, a pilot's mission is yet to be complete.

"Our mission does not stop after landing," said Harvey. "We begin a series of debriefs starting with our plane captains and maintenance control by giving them the status of the jets we flew. We'll continue to go through and inform those who need to know specifics of our mission, and then discuss with the pilots in our mission, the assessment of the flight and how we may improve for next one."

Pilots are equipped with the necessary training for flying combat operations starting very early in their careers.

"Pilots first attend ground school and primary flight instruction," said Harvey. "From there, we learn the basics of flying a jet, air-to-ground bombing and air-to-air maneuvering. We continue to learn how to fly and employ the F/A-18 Hornet in all basic missions."

The weapons and tactics change frequently and require constant study and practice to become effective and lethal on the battlefield.

"Each flight presents different challenges," said Harvey. "Although they are not always unique, they force pilots to rely on their training in order to carry out the mission effectively."

Along with the proper training, pilots would not be able to have mission success without the support of the Marines that care for their jets.

"I have the utmost respect and appreciation for the Marines who prepare the jets," said McGrew. "As pilots, we trust the Marines with our lives -- no questions asked. They protect us just like an infantry Marine would protect his officer-in-command."

In Iraq, pilots not only remember those Marines and troops they are supporting but the families of those service members, as well.

"The families are the reason we are able to do our jobs," said McGrew. "Their sacrifices and loyal support never has to be questioned. They have not forgotten why and who started the war, or the reason why we are here -- to protect the security of our great nation and supporting our Marines and troops on the ground. This is what we are known for and the only reason we exist today."