The plane captain stands at attention, saluting the pilot one last time. After hours of preparation and meticulous pre-flight checks Lance Cpl. Hunter Cauthron confidently clears the pilot for flight. Cauthron and his fellow maintenance Marines run back into the hangar as the F/A-18C Hornet aircraft taxis onto the runway.
“As an engine mechanic and PC, I am responsible for ensuring the safety of everyone on the flight deck, as well as for the life of the pilot who is about to fly that aircraft,” Cauthron said. “I am the one who signs off on inspections. I am the one who needs to make sure the jet is safe to fly. I ask myself, would I put one of my family members in that aircraft.”
For the day-crew of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 312, most mornings begin early with meetings, cleanups, and fuel load inspections on the aircraft. Once those are done, the priority shifts to flight operations.
“Before we begin maintenance on anything we prep the jets,” Cauthron said. “After our pilots take off, fly and return, we begin maintenance on other aircraft. It changes every day and the work is never done. Depending on the flight schedule, we could be focusing on flight ops all day and the night-crew will handle the maintenance. At other times, there is a higher volume of night ops so the day-crew will handle more maintenance.”
VMFA-312, also known as the Checkerboards, returned to Fightertown this past May following a seven-month deployment aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in support of combat and security operations in the U.S. 5th and 7th Fleet area of operations. While deployed, the responsibilities of maintainers increases along with the operational tempo.
“While on ship, the op tempo can be really intense,” Cauthron said. “Night or day, you have to be ready for anything. Sometimes we would get a mission out of nowhere. It was challenging to work long hours on an unpredictable schedule.”
Despite the challenges of being on ship, the 23 year-old said the past deployment was one of the most rewarding experiences of his career thus far.
“While aboard the USS Roosevelt we supported Operation Inherent Resolve,” Cauthron said. “It was so satisfying to send off our pilots with a full arsenal of munitions and see them return having deployed every single munition on a target. For the first time in my career, I saw how I was directly contributing to the mission of the Marine Corps.”
For Cauthron, safety of his Marines, of the pilot, and the pilot’s ability to fulfill the mission and support the Marines on the ground is what makes his job worth while.
“It’s incredible that these 18 and 19 year olds are capable of handling the weight of so much responsibility,” said Master Gunnery Sgt. Jonathan Flacon, the maintenance chief of VMFA-312. “I used to be a maintenance Marine just like Cauthron and I think they seldom get recognized. We trust them with multi-million-dollar aircraft and, most importantly, the lives of Marines and they do an amazing job.”