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Yuma stacks the deck: Will new ship be Harrier's emergency option?

By Lance Cpl. Austin Hazard | | November 19, 2009

The Navy and Marine Corps finished testing AV-8B Harriers on a new class of amphibious transport dock ship Nov. 15, 2009.

Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 31, from Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif., flew Harriers off the USS Green Bay from Nov. 11-15, 2009, to ensure the ship could support the aircraft in emergency situations.

The Green Bay is the Navy’s fourth San Antonio-class landing platform dock ship and was commissioned Jan. 24, 2009.

When a new ship class is created, it must be certified to work with various aircraft.

According to Capt. Gary Shill, VX-31 Harrier test pilot, the results of the tests were positive and VX-31 expects to see the San Antonio ship class receive its aviation certification.

To prepare for this testing period, VX-31 and the Green Bay’s flight deck crew trained on the Auxiliary Airfield 2 in Yuma, Ariz., an aircraft carrier flight deck replica, Nov. 5, 2009. Since the Green Bay is intended for helicopter use, many of its flight crew members are inexperienced working with Harriers.

“A lot of our crew members are very new to the fleet and many have never worked with jets before,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Albaro Rodriguez, USS Green Bay aviation fuel technician. “This is giving them a good chance to get prepared for possible emergency situations.”

Yuma’s Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 provided the fuel and equipment needed for the flight deck crew to practice refueling the Harriers during the training. MWSS-371 also instructed and critiqued the crewmembers on working with Harriers.

“The training that (Marine Aircraft Group 13) provided for the ship’s crew was top notch,” said Shill. “Without that training, the ship wouldn’t have been able to receive the Harriers and we wouldn’t have been able to conduct our tests.”

Once VX-31’s pilots had completed their carrier training at the airfield, they headed back to China Lake to prepare for their tests aboard the Green Bay.

“The Navy redesigned the LPD-class ship a couple of years ago, so we’re going to fly Harriers off of it to get it its aviation certification,” said Maj. Bill Rothermel, VX-31 Harrier test pilot, before the tests. “There are some limitations to Harriers working off of this ship, because it’s much smaller than a typical carrier. Its design is very different and wind affects it differently than what Harriers are used to on the larger carriers.”

While aboard the Green Bay, the squadron performed multiple vertical takeoffs and landings at various wind speeds to observe how it affected the aircraft.

“We’re defining the operational parameters for safe and acceptable wind conditions,” said Rothermel. “We’re also monitoring flight deck heat levels during and after takeoffs to make sure its structure can handle Harriers and the Joint Strike Fighter. The heat the Harrier puts off when landing and taking off (vertically) is pretty high, so we have to ensure repeated use won’t warp the deck.”

Though the squadron did not fly the JSF during this testing, the heat emitted from the JSF is greater than that from a Harrier. If the ship can’t handle a Harrier, it won’t be able to handle a JSF, said Rothermel.

“If the Green Bay gets its aviation certification, it’ll mean increased flexibility for the Marine expeditionary units,” said Rothermel.

Ten San Antonio-class ships are budgeted for the fleet, five of which are currently commissioned. These amphibious assault ships are intended to become the Navy’s primary amphibious transport docks and replace more than 40 amphibious ships, including dock landing ships, tank landing ships and the already-retired amphibious cargo ships.

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