MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. -- Lt. Col. Robert Kuckuk, Marine Attack Squadron 311 commanding officer, was presented a flight patch and certificate by Col. Glenn Hoppe, Marine Aircraft Group 13’s former commanding officer, at the VMA-311 ready room here Aug. 11 for reaching the milestone of flying 2,000 harrier jet flight hours during a close air support mission over Ramadi, Iraq March 5.
The flight patch and certificate is awarded to pilots by Boeing, who manufactures the aircraft, to recognize them for achieving certain flight hours, said Kuckuk, a native of Madison, Wis. There is a patch given for 500, 1,000, 2,000 and 3,000 flight hours.
"A young captain or major should fly two-hundred fifty hours a year,” said Kuckuk. “A five-hundred hour pilot is doing alright. A thousand hour harrier pilot is recognized as someone who has experience and knows what he's talking about.”
Kuckuk said earning 1,000 flight hours may take few years, but 2,000 flight hours takes a much longer to achieve, because as time goes on, pilots have more responsibilities and less time to fly as they pick up rank.
Reaching 2,000 flight hours is an impressive accomplishment, said Maj. Bartt Green, VMA-311 aircraft maintenance officer and AV-8B Harrier pilot.
"It's a no-kidding (acknowledgement) for the amount of time a pilot has spent in the jet,” said Green, a Cincinnati native.
“It shows you're learning your aircraft and teaching new pilots about it,” added Kuckuk.
What makes the patch more significant in Kuckuk’s case is that harriers are flown for short periods of time, making it harder for pilots to accumulate flight hours, said Hoppe, an Ajo, Ariz., native.
"The mission of the Harrier is not long range,” Hoppe said. “It's a quick-strike flight."
“I flew four times one day and didn't break an hour,” he said. "Our normal sortie is about one hour. That means (Kuckuk) got in an aircraft and successfully completed a mission two-thousand times.”
On top of short flights, harriers are costly to operate, so pilots perform more flight simulator training, said Green.
"The maintenance hours on a harrier is pretty tough,” Green explained. “You need more maintenance hours per flight hours on the harrier than you would on (other aircraft), so generally a harrier pilot will have less hours."
"(Less than) 10 percent of Harrier pilots reach two-thousand flight hours," said Kuckuk.
However, Kuckuk stressed that the achievement is accomplished only by a matter of flying.
"If you stick around long enough to have the opportunity to go flying, soon enough you'll get yourself a 2,000 hour patch too," said Kuckuk.
Ever since he began flying 15 years ago, Kuckuk has had his head in the clouds flying the AV-8B Harrier, Harrier II, Harrier II Plus and the TA-V8B Harrier trainer.
Kuckuk said he always wanted to become a pilot as much as he wanted to become a Marine. He is currently the only pilot within VMA-311 to have the 2,000 flight hour patch.