MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. --
From across the pond he came. His goal, to fly the AV-8B Harrier. Now, however, as the time for his return draws near, Flight Lieutenant Douglas McKay, takes not only the British Harrier pilot exchange program, but a wealth of experience gained during his stay.
In June 2009, McKay, 34, stepped off a plane with his wife and children after an exhausting 10 hours of flight, only to board another one heading into the desert of the American Southwest.
Upon arrival, McKay, a native of Hamilton, Scotland, was greeted by the landscape and heat only Yuma can offer.
“I’ve been to America before,” said McKay. “My mother and father moved to Elizabethtown, Ky., in 1997 until 2001 when they moved back to the U.K. So I’ve been here before, and my family’s been here before, but in a much different climate and for a much shorter stay.”
While here, McKay has been attached to Marine Attack Squadron 311, operating much as he would in his original units, 20 (R) Squadron, the Harrier operational conversion unit, based at British Royal Air Force Base Wittering - the “Home of the Harrier” and Squadron No. IV(AC), a front line Harrier squadron, based at RAF Cottesmore.
“It’s very much the same,” said McKay. “The main differences lie in some of the day-to-day operations and running of things. In the U.K., there is very much a system of devolved authority, people accomplishing tasks but not necessarily seeking explicit approval from the upper levels of the command. Here, in a much larger organization, everything is very much preplanned as much as possible and approved accordingly. I’m not presuming that one is right or wrong, just that there is a slight difference in the method of madness.”
McKay is part of the aviation personnel exchange program, designed to give foreign pilots from participating countries the experience of traveling to the U.S. and working with our military, and vice versa.
However, the Harrier component of the program is ending, with McKay being the last British exchange Harrier pilot.
“The program itself isn’t going away, just the Harrier program,” said McKay. “It’s due to the British giving up the Harrier capability within the U.K. and choosing to accept perhaps a capability gap before transitioning to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which will be phenomenal. There are, I believe, still going to be pilots coming over to fly F-18s and helicopters within the Corps, but the British are essentially now waiting for the JSF to come to fruition before they start sending people again.”
While the program is ending, McKay says he couldn’t be happier with the experience.
“It’s really a great program,” said McKay. “It’s allowed me to really see the interworking of the most powerful military on the planet and really grasp some of the tactics that you guys use. I think there will and should always be an exchange program for all aspects of our militaries. It allows us to see what our “big brother” ally is doing and how he does it.”
While with the Tomcats, McKay joined them on their deployment with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, traveling to the Horn of Africa, assisting in disaster relief in Pakistan and flying operational missions into Afghanistan.
“It was a grand ol’ time,” remarked McKay. “I loved the social dynamic of it, a bunch of men and women trapped on a boat with each other for seven months. Brilliant!”
Although the British do have deployments aboard ships, theirs normally last four months or so, shorter than a typical U.S. Marine deployment.
“After month two of a British deployment you’re not really that sad or cooped up,” said McKay. “The mystique of it all still hasn’t really gone away and at month three you know you only have another month. But on that seven-month excursion, wow, you start going bonkers around five months. I started to think that we were just going to stay there forever and never go home.”
Even with the hardships, McKay is glad to have the experience of coming here.
“I do love this country,” said McKay in earnest. “In Europe, you have to travel to other countries to really see different climates. Here, you’ve got deserts, mountains, tropical forests, huge untamed wildernesses, two oceans and everything in between, all in one country. It’s really quite spectacular.”
Above all, though, McKay likes the people.
“Everyone here is super supportive of the military men and women,” said McKay. “In Britain, the overt support is perhaps not as visible as it is across here. In the States, from what I’ve witnessed, everyone loves to see a military member walking down the street and will cheer and pat them on the back for their service, and I rather like that. I think it may be because you all have such a huge prior-service population or everybody has somebody they know who’s had the experience, especially with the bulk of Operation Iraqi Freedom forces essentially coming from your shores.”
McKay is scheduled to take his leave from America in the summer. After returning home he plans to remain in the British Royal Air Force for as long as they let him.
“All I can say is it’s been a pleasure, chaps,” said McKay. “Thanks for welcoming my family and I across here to serve amongst you. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. Cheerio.”