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U.S.S. BONHOMME RICHARD, At Sea - An AV-8B Harrier from Marine Attack Squadron 542 completes a vertical landing for night time carrier landing qualification on the moving deck of the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard, August 27. A detachment of six Harriers serves as the fixed wing asset of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit's Air Combat Element.

Photo by Lance Cpl. Michael Oxton

31st MEU’s Harriers qualify in short takeoffs, vertical landings on ship

28 Aug 2012 | Lance Cpl. Codey Underwood

As the ship surges forward through Pacific waters, an AV-8B Harrier hovers 30 feet above its bow, preparing to descend on the deck of an Amphibious Assault Ship. 

 Marines from Marine Attack Squadron 542, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, conducted carrier landing qualifications during daylight hours and then completed night qualifications here, August 28. In order to operate from the deck of a ship, Harrier pilots must certify their skills in short takeoffs and vertical landings on a moving naval vessel. 

 The pilots begin the qualification process on land, performing short takeoffs and vertical landings without the complications of sea-borne operations. After gaining experience in the methods on land, the pilots have 14 days to complete the process by certifying their skills on the pitching and rolling deck of a ship.

 The weight of the aircraft and the short deck of the ship allow little time to get airborne, according to Capt. David C. Campbell, an AV-8B Harrier pilot and a native of Fairfax, Va. Communication between the pilot and the control tower is a vital step in the process, as the tower relays required instrument settings, down to the smallest details.

 “If you mess up any of your parameters, you will end up in the water,” said Campbell. “Although taking off can be difficult, landing the Harrier is a lot harder.”

 When performing a vertical landing on a moving ship, the pilot must be precise. They use the horizontal position indicator to the right of the aircraft and the tramline, a line going down the center of the runway, to guide the aircraft down during daylight hours. 

 “With the pitch and the roll, while trying to hover at the same speed as the ship, you really have to know what you’re doing,” said Campbell.

 The aircraft descends slowly, with the pilot waiting for the control tower’s signal to cut the engines off. Since the thrust of the aircraft is downward to create the hover and slow descent, keeping the engines on towards the end of the descent could cause damage to the deck of the ship and make the aircraft unstable. 

 Qualification requires skill and precision during the day, but the night qualification leaves little room for error. During the daytime, pilots are able to use their full peripheral vision to maneuver the Harriers, but night vision goggles severely limit what can be seen.

 “You have to be perfect at night, there is no room for error and it’s unforgiving,” said Maj. Howard L. Longwell, an AV-8B Harrier pilot with VMA-542, 31st MEU and a native of Waterloo, N.Y. “With a 43 degree field of view, it is a lot tougher at night than during the day.” 

 The Harrier is Unique for its short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities and is the only fixed-wing aircraft that has the ability to lift off of the short deck of an Amphibious Assault Ship. As a dedicated air-to-ground platform with air-to-air capabilities, it can support the MEU with air and ground reconnaissance, tactical coordination, air-to-ground  and air-to-air strike capabilities. 

 “The Harriers provide a long distance offensive striking capability,” said Lt. Col. Brian C. Hawkins, the operations officer for the 31st MEU and a native of Chandler, Ariz. “They are the offensive punch that allows us to fight effectively as a complete Marine Air Ground Task Force.”

The 31st MEU is the Marine Corps’ force in readiness for the Asia Pacific and the only continuously forward deployed MEU.

31st Marine Expeditionary Unit