Each day is an air show for Yuma-area residents as Marine Corps pilots ply their skills in the cockpits of their Harriers.
That's because Marine Corps Air Station Yuma is home to the four Harrier squadrons on the West Coast, its headquarters element Marine Aircraft Group-13 (MAG-13) and their support units.
In 1985, the Marine Corps began to transition from the aging F-4 Phantom (used by Marine Corps since 1962), A-4 Skyhawk (since 1956) and AV-8A (since 1970) Harrier jets, to the new AV-8B Harrier.
At the time, the Marine Corps operated Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro, Calif., as its primary West Coast air station. It also was the headquarters of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, which commands all deployable aviation forces on the West Coast, according to a MCAS Yuma release. Since then, El Toro has been closed and the operations moved to MCAS Miramar, a former Navy air base.
During the transition, the Marine Corps considered several options for stationing the four proposed Harrier squadrons on the West Coast. The Marine Corps determined that stationing some of the Harriers at El Toro and some at Yuma would cause logistical and command problems between the two locations.
The Marine Corps also considered basing all the Harriers at El Toro, but decided its distance from the Barry M. Goldwater Range and Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range - used by pilots to train - would waste fuel and training time.
Prior to the move of MAG-13 and its Harrier squadrons, Yuma was home to Marine Combat Crew Readiness Training Group 10, an aviation training unit based on the air station since 1969. One of its subordinate squadrons was VMA-513, which was the only deployable tactical attack squadron based at Yuma.
The first AV-8B Harriers arrived in Yuma in early 1987 and MAG-13 officially stood up at Yuma on Oct. 1, 1987. Over the next few years, each of the Marine Attack Squadrons transitioned from their old aircrafts to the AV-8B Harriers. They include the Wake Island Avengers of VMA- 211, the Black Sheep of VMA-214, the Tomcats of VMA-311 and the Flying Nightmares of VMA-513.
The McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II, first flown in 1981, is a family of second-generation vertical/short takeoff and landing or V/STOL ground-attack aircraft of the late 20th century. The aircraft is unusual in the international nature of its development, which brought the design from the first British P.1127 prototype to the AV-8B Harrier II of today.
When the Harrier II was first flown in the fall of 1981, 21 years had elapsed since the original Hawker P.1127 first hovered in untethered flight.
Since then, the AV-8B has been the workhorse aircraft in the Marine Corps' arsenal and "has proven itself" in both Afghanistan and Iraq, said retired Harrier pilot Ross Hieb. His days in a Harrier cockpit stretch from 1972 when he trained on an early-day version of the plane in England until he retired in 1996. He also served as the commander of MAG-13.
Hieb described flying the Harrier as "awesome. It's really neat to fly. The early ones were like driving a sports car. It depended on the pilot's skills more than the newer versions."
Unfortunately, he said, "we still lose some, maybe through pilot error, but more likely engine failure."
Even though he's retired, Hieb said he was still excited about the next chapter in fighter jets, the F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, that's destined to replace the Harrier. It's expected that at least some of the Marine Corps' F-35s will be based at MCAS Yuma.
"I spent a lot of time in the cockpits of the Harrier," Hieb said. "But I'm looking forward to seeing the guys get new planes. The F-35 is a really remarkable plane."
Joyce Lobeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6853.