MARINE CORPS AIR STATION BEAUFORT, S.C. -- To amass 100,000 mishap-free flight hours throughout war and peace in a tactical jet is rare.
On May 24, the Moonlighters of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 332 became the first Marine tactical jet squadron to achieve this milestone, an acccomplishment 27 years in the making.
Lieutenant Gen. James Amos, the II Marine Expeditionary Force commanding general, traveled to the Air Station July 20, to personally congratulate the Moonlighters.
“This is a very significant accomplishment,” Amos said. “This has not been done by another Marine tactical squadron. It is like winning the lottery. This is an accomplishment that is almost impossible.”
During the ceremony the Moonlighters were presented with a plaque from Gary Van Gysel, the manager of Marine Corps Programs East for the Boeing Company.
“I have given out a lot of awards, but this is the first time I have ever handed out an award like this,” Van Gysel said. “These are the safest jets and we’re proud to be a part of this.”
The Moonlighters’ last Class A mishap was in 1978, when the squadron was flying the A-6 Intruder.
“Something like this does not just happen by luck, it takes a great squadron,” Col. Robert S. Walsh, the commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 31, told the group of Marines who gathered on the flight line to witness the event, May 24. “Congratulations to all of you and welcome to the record books.”
While the Moonlighters were racking up their safety hours, the squadron experienced three major changes, transitioning into new aircraft with a new mission and onto a new base.
The 62-year-old squadron was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., from 1958 until June 16, 1993, when the squadron was re-designated VMFA(AW)-332, moved to MCAS Beaufort and transitioned to the F/A-18D Hornet.
“The significance of this milestone is remarkable when you consider the fact that this squadron has been operating combat-ready aircraft since the Korean War,” said Lt. Col. David Wilbur, the Moonlighters’ commanding officer. “This record is a result of about 60,000 hours in the A-6 and 40,000 in the F/A-18, so it’s a combination of many people doing so much over a long period of time.”
Change is a constant for all aviation squadrons, the turnover of personnel cannot be discounted. Much of the credit goes to all the Moonlighters - past and present - who made the milestone a reality, according to Wilbur.
“It’s an honor to be the commander of this squadron, but it is also a credit to the commanding officers before me,” Wilbur said. “It is really a testament to the professionalism, loyalty and commitment of the Marines of the squadron during the entire span of these flight hours.”
The milestone-marking flight was piloted by Capt. Greg Summa with Capt. Mark Bortnem, a weapons and sensors officer, at the backseat controls. Ensuring the safety of the aircraft and pilots is a 24/7 job for the squadron’s Marines, according to Summa.
“As a pilot, I might be the one that signs for the airplane but it is the trained Marines behind me that have made sure the jet is ready to go and fully mission capable before it even leaves the ground,” Summa said. “While it’s in the air, it is in my hands and we swap it back over on the ground. It is really the young and old Marines on the maintenance side who made this happen.”
The milestone also proves that the Moonlighters’ team performs with excellence from top to bottom, according to Summa.
“We as a whole, as the Moonlighters, are doing something right and we’re going to continue to strive for that,” Summa said. “We are at a point where individuals, from the pilots and maintenance Marines to all the S-shops in the squadron, are all doing the right things.”
Putting together the right pieces to reach this milestone can also fall on many different assets outside of the squadron, according to Wilbur.
“Flight hours we achieve are done by hard work by both aircrew and maintainers but there are many other people who are involved in this,” Wilbur said. “Other aircraft, the air traffic controllers who manage the skies and all the Marines who support (our Marines). It really is a combined effort.”
Safety issues are not just a matter of preventing injuries, but also protecting the ability of the Marine Corps to accomplish its missions, according to Wilbur.
“We as an organization and as a community are doing everything we can to reduce mishaps,” Wilbur said. “This milestone is an achievement on the right side of things. This is not just an achievement for the squadron, but the entire Marine Corps.”
The F/A-18 that surpassed the record only seats two, however, on May 24th, the cockpit was crowded with the spirit of all the Moonlighters who helped set the mark, according to Bortnem.
“Me flying in this airplane is the smallest part of what goes on here,” Bortnem said. “It’s the Marines who work 24 hours a day and are on the frontlines to make this happen who deserve the credit. I’m just lucky to fly with this squadron.”