EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --
For a squadron nicknamed for a nocturnal flier, the Bats of Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 242 didn't let 19 hours of daylight here each day keep them grounded May 5-16 during exercise Northern Edge 2008.
After packing up their planes in Iwakuni, Japan, and flying thousands of miles, the squadron took part in the joint-service training exercise that provides the opportunity to hone current and test future applications of combat operations and weapon capabilities.
"We are flying everyday, air-to-air missions, air-to-ground missions, responding to (close air support)," said Capt. Jeffrey J. Horton, a pilot with 242. "What we do here is practice the Marine aviation doctrine of supporting Marines on the ground."
Supporting Marines on the ground can sometimes be a difficult and tricky job. Most battlefield environments are unfriendly skies, full of enemy aircraft, surface-to-air missiles and other enemy defenses used to keep that air support away from the battle.
The Bats have some advantages in these situations. They fly the F/A-18D variant, a two-seat aircraft with room for a weapon system officer in the back. The WSO, or "whizzo," handles radars and weapons systems, leaving the pilot to concentrate on driving the aircraft. Having another set of eyes and ears in the air is a huge asset during complicated missions riddled with various threats from both air and ground. However, Horton points out, the pilot still has the "pickle button," to release or employ the various weapons systems on board.
Teamwork and coordination doesn’t end in the cockpit. Northern Edge is about joint forces working together.
"We're working with the Air Force, using their assets, using our specialties and combining to be a great tactical force," said Horton, a native of Union City, Mich. "That's how it would work. Everyone would work together and combine arms to successfully complete the mission—save those Marines on the ground."
Not only do the Marine and Air Force pilots support Marines on the ground, they also rely on them. Cpl. Kyle Marko, a 22-year-old communications and navigations systems technician, keeps both pilots and planes in the air.
"If any jet (breaks down), we will stay here 24 hours a day. It's mission essential to get these jets up," Marko said. "The whole unit has to work together. If our stuff doesn't work, then another shop's stuff isn't going to work."
Marko cites unit cohesion as the most important component to making joint training situations work.
"As little as we have out here, we’ll make it work no matter what," he said. "We come together as a team—day crew, night crew, Marines, Air Force, it doesn’t matter. We will make mission."