Special Report : VMAT-203 - AV-8B Harrier Pilot Training
VMAT-203 USMC AV-8B Harrier II Pilot Training
Dick Wels visited MCAS Cherry Point and reports on Marine Harrier pilot training as the AV-8B enters the final years of its USMC service.
The fighter aircraft community of the U.S. Marine Corps is transitioning to the 5th generation F-35 Lightning II. The USMC fighter aircraft backbone today consists of the F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8B Harrier II. The AV-8B will be replaced by the F-35 first. The current Marine Corps Aviation Plan schedules the sundown of the AV-8B beginning in 2023 and ending by 2028, in conjunction with the scheduled standup of F-35 squadrons, which has already begun and is slated to continue past 2032. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 at MCAS Yuma, Arizona, became the first squadron in military history to become operational with the F-35 in July 2015. Until the retirement of the Harrier II, there is the need to train its pilots. The ‘Hawks’ at Marine Attack Training Squadron 203 (VMAT-203) are responsible for the training. It’s evident that now the number of operational AV-8Bs is decreasing, there’s a reduced need for new pilots. The sundown of Harrier training is slowly beginning and will be completed in FY22 if things go according to the Marine Corps’ plan.
The beginning of USMC Harrier ops
In 1971 the AV-8A entered USMC service in the ground-attack role. The AV-8A was a development of the Hawker Siddeley Harrier, the first operational Vertical/Short Takeoff and Landing (V/STOL) fighter ever. Fleet Replacement Squadron VMAT-203 ‘Hawks’ was tasked to conduct combat capable attack training for selected aircrews on the Harrier and to provide technical training for aviation maintenance personnel. In 1979 the Marines began upgrading the AV-8A to AV-8C. The goal of the upgrade was extending the service life of the aircraft and improving its VTOL performance. The first AV-8B Harrier II, an extensively redesigned version, was delivered in December 1983. VMAT-203 then took care of training both AV-8A/C pilots and AV-8B replacement aircrews. AV-8A/C training ended in March 1985 and in 1987 the Marines retired the AV-8C and remaining AV-8As. Since then the ‘Hawks’ have been training AV-8B pilots and maintenance personnel. The current USMC Harrier fleet consists of the AV-8B Harrier II Night Attack variant, the AV-8B Harrier II+ variant (similar version equipped with the APG-65 radar), and the TAV-8B two-seat trainer.
The Harrier pilots are trained to operate the AV-8B and all its systems to support the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) commander by destroying surface targets and escorting friendly aircraft, day or night under all weather conditions during expeditionary, joint, or combined operations. It takes 3.6 years in total to train a Marines’ AV-8B pilot. In comparison, it takes 4.2 years to train an F/A-18 aviator. During their training at MCAS Cherry Point in North Carolina, students receive ground training and familiarization on the Harrier II at VMAT-203.
The biggest difference between a regular powered jet and a V/STOL jet is the additional controls associated with the nozzle deflection system. Along with the traditional throttle and control stick found on non-V/STOL aircraft, the AV-8B has a nozzle control lever that operates the four exhaust nozzles to deflect thrust and allow the aircraft to hover. The V/STOL capability does provide unique options to the pilot as they have 4 different ways to takeoff and 7 different ways to land, which allows them to operate in a variety of environments.
The AV-8B carries out both air-to-ground and air-to-air missions, to include long range strikes, close air support, air defense, escort, and armed reconnaissance. While the AV-8B community prides itself on being experts in close air support, improvements to the aircraft’s avionics suite and weapons capability since its introduction has made the AV-8B a very versatile platform. However, unlike the majority of today’s fighters, the Harrier II is not fly-by-wire. This means that the AV-8B does not prevent the pilot from exceeding performance or structural limits while maneuvering. The pilot must be able to determine when he is approaching the edge of the operating envelope and adjust his inputs to avoid departing controlled flight. Most fighters do this automatically through computer monitoring so the pilot can concentrate on the threat or his mission, but the AV-8B pilot does not have that luxury.
AV-8B pilot’s life after graduation
After graduation the new pilots continue on to fleet squadrons and complete combat and qualifications training. The newly qualified Harrier pilot is recommended to fly an average of 15.4 hours per month to keep aviation combat readiness. All pilots are responsible for proficiency and progression with regards to tactics and procedures, but they will also have non-flying responsibilities such as formulating the flight schedule for the next few days or being the officer-in-charge of a maintenance work center. Each 1-3 hour flight requires several hours of planning, 2 hours for the flight brief and 1-2 hours to debrief. Combining the time required for a flight event and ground job tasking, it is not unusual for an AV-8B pilot to average 12 or more hours a day at work, with the expectation to fly cross-country training evolutions about one weekend a month.
Besides the USMC the Spanish and Italian Navies also operate the AV-8B. The Marine Corps works with both of these forces informally through sharing of best practices and hazard identification, as well as formally through pilot exchange programs and training. Every year there are several pilots from these countries who complete their initial Harrier training at MCAS Cherry Point with VMAT-203, and some of them continue in the US and fly with fleet units for a few years before returning home.
Sundown of AV-8B pilot training
In February 2014, the Marine Air Board accepted a TACAIR plan that accelerates the transition of all the West Coast VMA (Marine Attack) squadrons to the F-35B by 2020, and foresees the Harrier out of service date of the remaining East Coast VMAs by 2025. There are currently 6 active VMAs with 14 AV-8B aircraft each. The average age of the fleet is 18 years for the AV-8B and 25 years for the TAV-8B. VMAT-203 will maintain its role as Fleet Replacement Squadron until FY2022. In the coming years the inventory of the squadron will be reduced. According to the Marine Fixed-Wing Aviation Plan the numbers of operational aircraft (Primary Authorized Aircraft) in VMAT-203 look like this:
Recent participation in operations over Libya and Afghanistan again proved the versatility of the jump jet. The MAGTF can rely on the unique possibilities presented by this magnificent aircraft, nowadays equipped with advanced precision weapons and the LITENING targeting pod, and AMRAAM capability in case of the APG-65 equipped Harrier II+. Improvement of the AV-8B is still on-going with upgrades such as the recent installation of Airborne Variable Message Format terminals that provides joint digital-aided close air support technology and the introduction of the Deployable Mission Rehearsal Trainer which will give deployed forces the possibility to continue to train with the aircraft’s advanced systems. More is to come in 2017 with the upgrade of the Operational Flight Program software from H6.1 to H6.2 version, integrating FAA-compliant Required Navigation Performance/Area Navigation (RNP/RNAV) capability and correct additional software deficiencies identified through combat operations. The next large modification will be full Link-16 network integration for all AV-8B II+ radar-equipped aircraft.
So, although the end of its service is nearing, the Harrier II will continue to play a vital role in the USMC’s missions all around the world over the coming years and VMAT-203 will continue to do what they can to deliver the best aircrew and maintenance personnel in support of the Marine Attack Squadrons’ mission success!
Report and photos by Dick Wels ( view portfolio )
Last Modified: 28 May 2016