USS ESSEX, At sea --
Coming in to land vertically onto the pitching, moving deck of the USS Essex (LHD 2), is no easy task, but the Marines of Marine Attack Squadron 311, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, skillfully completed that very task, March 4.
Flying on five AV-8B Harriers, VMA 311 joined its brothers at sea, and is now preparing to support the 31st MEU as it moves into Amphibious Integration Training and Certification Exercise.
“We are here to support the MEU,” said Lt. Col. Peter S. Blake, the commanding officer of VMA 311, 31st MEU. “We provide them all the close air support, non-traditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, as well as convoy escort or aerial escort for the helicopters and ground assets out there.”
To ensure VMA 311 is fully prepared to support the 31st MEU during the day and night, the pilots of VMA 311 wasted no time and began conducting carrier landing qualifications.
“We are conducting landings during the day and will transition straight into night landings so we can get current on our carrier landing qualifications,” said Capt. Brandon G. Lev, the quality assurance officer, and harrier pilot with VMA 311, 31st MEU.
Landing during the day allows the pilots a chance to familiarize themselves with important reference points on the ship that are needed when landing during the night.
Although many of the pilots have done this training on multiple occasions, there are still factors that challenge their skills, making the training even more important for the pilots to conduct.
“If there’s a full moon out then it’s like flying during the day as long as the sky is clear,” said Lev. “But if there is a cloud layer and its already dark it just makes it that much more difficult, even if we are using night vision goggles.”
The pilots will conduct what is called aided, and unaided night landings; meaning they will do some utilizing night vision goggles, and others with only the moonlight and dim deck lights on the flight deck of the USS Essex to guide them.
Another challenge the pilots must overcome is just landing on a moving ship. To do this, they have to be moving forward as fast as the ship is, and land vertically at the same time.
“It’s a little bit weird when you’re trying to land straight down while the boat is still moving,” said Lev. “You don’t realize you’re still moving forward as your coming down. It’s not too hard but you definitely have to pay close attention to what is going on.”
The Marines of VMA 311 are currently preparing for the MEU’s Certification Exercise, where they will be evaluated on their abilities to operate from ship.
The 31st MEU is the only continuously forward-deployed MEU and remains the nation’s force in readiness in the Asia-Pacific region.