MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. -- Marine Attack Training Squadron-203 arrived on station April 30 to begin a month-long series of training for pilots working on their certification on the AV-8B Harrier.
The unit, based out of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., brings two classes of four students, known as replacement pilots, here four times a year to take advantage of the capabilities and availability of Yuma's ranges and of Yuma's perfect flying weather, said Maj. Mike R. Huber, operations officer, VMAT-203.
"Yuma's always been a great place to come to because of the amount of support we get here, especially since there are four Harrier squadrons here," said Huber, who transferred to the unit 10 months ago from Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron-1. "We're restricted to using inert ordnance on the East Coast and only have one range. We have four areas within the ranges we use here, which is great for training the pilots, and it gives them a chance to see different ranges as well."
The base line for training a pilot to fly a Harrier is 36 weeks, said the Idaho Falls, Idaho, native. Potential Harrier pilots must meet a minimum naval flight standard, or score, to even be accepted into the Harrier community.
"We like to think we get all the best pilots," Huber said. "If they're not (the best) when they come to us, we send them out the door that way."
The road to becoming a Harrier pilot is not a quick one, said 1st Lt. Art Q. Bruggeman, a replacement pilot in the first stages of training who calls Quantico, Va., home.
"I've been in the Marine Corps three and a half years, and the last three have been in pilot training," said Bruggeman, who will be stationed on the East Coast when he completes training. "You sign an eight-year contract when you get 'winged,' which started for me a year ago. It's fun, though. The Harrier is definitely the best aircraft out there."
Training in Yuma is a great opportunity because there are less restrictions on the type of ordnance used, Bruggeman said. Yuma also offers a wider variety of targets the replacement pilots can practice on.
"I like it a lot here. The weather is great; we never get (a flight) cancelled due to weather. And the ranges are all in a pretty centralized area so it makes it a really great base," he added.
The students go through three phases of training before earning their Harrier qualification: basic air-to-surface, which is an introduction into dropping a bomb on target; advanced air-to-surface, which offers more advanced concepts such as aerial reconnaissance; and air-to-air combat, said Huber. The two classes currently training here are in the first two stages of the air-to-surface evolutions.
"The syllabus is definitely challenging. You have to be precise in planning and executing the training," Bruggeman said. "Here in Yuma we have good weather, good flying, a good atmosphere and good training. We get to do more of the tactical flying, which makes it feel more like we're doing the stuff you see on TV."
"I love Yuma. It is awesome that I'm going to be stationed here," said 1st Lt. Brent Thorud, a replacement pilot in the advanced air-to-surface class. "We have a much better opportunity to drop bombs (in Yuma) and it's just beautiful to fly out here."
Replacement pilots know from the start of training what area they will be stationed at: West Coast, East Coast or overseas. Coming to the West Coast region means being stationed at Yuma, the Clatskanie, Ore., native said.
"Even if you're not (going to be stationed) here, it's nice to get out and get some experience in a different area," Thorud said. "My wife and I are both really anxious to get out here."
"Whether you've been stationed here or are just coming here with a detachment to train, everyone learns to love this place because it's such a great place to train," Huber said. "And the Harrier community is small enough that we all know each other, so help is always available."
VMAT-203 will return to MCAS Cherry Point at the end of May.