MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. -- The AV-8B Harrier is used by pilots throughout the world for its adaptability and usefulness in many situations. Many allied countries use the aircraft in a slightly different way allowing each nation’s pilots to fly the bird a little differently.
The Pilot Exchange Program allows selected pilots to relocate to a military installation in a participating foreign country and allows them to learn methods and tactics other countries use.
“The countries currently participating in the program are Italy, Spain, Britain and the United States,” said Italian Navy Lt. j.g. Gaetano Rapisarda, pilot, Marine Attack Squadron 513.
The program selects qualified pilots from a list of volunteers. The volunteers then attend a six month class, if needed, prior to relocating to their new duty station.
“The class is an abbreviated language class to familiarize us with the language we are going to be speaking,” said Rapisarda.
After the language class, the pilots begin their tour of duty in a new country, said British Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Michael Baker, pilot VMA-513.
The United States sends one pilot to each participating country and all three countries send one pilot here.
“We get stationed in America for around three years,” said Rapisarda. “It’s a little hard to pack up your whole family and move to a new country, but the training is great.”
While relocating half-way around the world may be a great benefit of the program, the main focus is training.
“The program is a great opportunity for coalition partners to share ideas and experiences at the tactical level,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Parkhurst, commanding officer, VMA-513. “We have former exchange pilots that are now general officers and I am sure that those officers have a much better understanding and appreciation for joint and coalition operations as a result of their earlier experiences in the exchange program.”
The program is geared toward teaching other pilots how American pilots use the Harrier and also, showing them how other countries use the same aircraft.
“For the United States, the Harrier is a close air support asset,” said Baker. “For America, the Harrier is a way to protect the (troops) on the ground.”
“In Italy we use the Harrier for air defense on our Naval carriers,” said Rapisada. “We don’t use it for CAS at all, but since I have been here I have learned how to provide CAS to ground forces in need.”
The exchange program grants pilots the opportunity to do things they may never have done otherwise.
“When I was in Italy, we never flew CAS and we never carried live ordnance,” said the Italian pilot. “Since I have been here, I have dropped a lot of ordnance. I am one of the honored few Italians to drop live ordnance. In Italy we don’t have the space to participate in this kind of training.”
“The Marine Corps does CAS better than anyone else in the world,” said Baker. “I feel honored to be able to participate.”
In the end, the pilots may originate from a distant country but they are a great addition to the American fighting force.
“The exchange pilots I have assigned to 513 are special people,” said Parkhurst. “They have moved to a new country, adopted a new system of operating, yet have made a measurable impact in the training and readiness of the Nightmares. The exchange pilots that are assigned to us are exceptional officers and I wish we had more of them ... we'd be better off for it.”