Young Marines help fighter attack squadrons accomplish mission

21 Jun 2002 | Gunnery Sgt. Terence Peck

Many young men and women graduating high school and joining the workforce find their biggest responsibility is filing documents or making sure the fries are hot.

For the young Marines serving in fighter attack squadrons around the world, the responsibilities they hold involve a large amount of assets and the lives of those who help fight the nation's war on terrorism.

"They come to us, 18 or 19-years-old, young Marines that we have to train to be responsible for over a half billion dollars worth of assets, not counting the pilot's life," Staff Sgt. Willie J. Timms, maintenance control chief, VMFA-251.

One of those Marines is Lance Cpl. Mauricio A. Driaza, a plane captain with VMFA-251. As a plane captain, the 21-year-old is responsible for ensuring that all of the maintenance has been completed on the aircraft before take off.

Diaza, from Grapevine, Texas, must ensure everything is going right from the launch to the recovery of the jet aircraft.

Using arm and hand signals, the plane captain lets the pilot know when the jet is ready to be launched. On recovery, he must park the jet in the correct position to make room for the other aircraft returning from a mission.

"That pilot trusts me to make sure that the jet is correct, so he doesn't die because of something significant we might have missed," Driaza said. "You're always second guessing yourself, you triple and quadruple check."

Every time a jet takes off, the Marines know the great responsibility they wield as plane captains.

"We're the last ones they see right before they take off," he said. "We're up there right before to make sure all his hoses are connected and we're the last ones to say 'Have a safe flight and see you when you get back, sir.'"

As a plane captain, one of Driaza 's proudest moments was having his name put on the aircraft.

"It felt great the first time I saw my name on the jet," he said. "There are only two people who get their names on a jet, the plane captain and pilot. It really says a lot. It says we pretty much own the jet and let everybody else work on it."

While Driaza is performing his systems checks with the pilot, other Marines are prepared to help should a problem arise.

Another Marine responsible for troubleshooting problems is Lance Cpl. Christian P. Scala, a communication navigation technician. Scala, 20, works with the aircraft's radios, radars, displays and navigation systems.

"We're out there in case the system's not working," he said. "We plug into the jet and troubleshoot it in time for that jet to launch."

For Driaza and Scala, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 put their skills to the test when their squadron was called to begin the initial strikes on the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

During the six months deployed on the USS Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, VMFA-251 flew more than 700 combat sorties, dropping 450,000 pounds of ordnance during the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Each jet that participates in a mission is a sortie. For each of the sorties, Marines like Diaza and Scala worked 12-hour shifts and ensured there were no mechanical or electrical problems during their record breaking 169 days at sea.

Many times for Scala and the other Marines, working on the ship was a challenge.

"It's a lot of pressure when you're out there on the ship," Scala said. "You only have a five minute window where you have to fix this jet. If it's not fixed, the jet don't fly."

Despite the pressure and long hours, the Marines and pilots accomplished their missions.

"The job they do is nothing short of heroic on the ship in my opinion," said Timms. "The total amount of hours worked a week in conjunction with having to field day, study for BST (Battle Skills Test) or just waiting in line to eat chow was huge. You are talking about 100 to 110 hours a week."

Many of the pilots at VMFA-251 are proud of the Marines and the jobs they did during Operation Enduring Freedom.

"I never walked to an aircraft that wasn't ready to go and when we did have problems requiring troubleshooting, they hustled like a NASCAR pit crew to get the problem solved," said Capt. Robert J. Gallagher, F/A-18D pilot, VMFA-251.

"Every one of the T-Bolt Marines that made the cruise impressed me. Their drive and desire to ensure that the squadron accomplished its mission was on the same level as the pilots."

With an accelerated work tempo and spending record-breaking days at sea, the entire crew returned home without a mishap.

While many young people today are still wondering what to do with their lives, Americans can be proud to know that the Marines of the fighter attack squadrons already know and are protecting them.