KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan -- Harrier pilots and crews with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) recently surpassed one thousand hours of flying during combat operations in Afghanistan.
The Harriers are deployed with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (Rein.) 266, the MEU's aviation combat element, and are supporting operations aimed at destroying Taliban and anti-coalition fighters as Afghan election efforts continue.
"Our Harrier pilots have flown over 1,000 combat hours, both in direct support of MEU, as well as in support of the Combined Forces Air Component Commander (CFACC)," said Lt. Col. Russ Powers, the commanding officer of HMM-266 (Rein).
The Laurel, Miss. native added, "The performance of all of our Marines has truly been inspirational."
The Harrier detachment joined HMM-266 (Rein.) from Marine Attack Squadron 542, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing in Cherry Point, N.C.
As the 22nd MEU (SOC) has pushed deep into the Taliban heartland for the past two months, the Harriers have been a large part of their success.
The MEU's commander, Col. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., is pleased with the Harriers' performance. "Their speed, lethality and intelligence gathering capabilities have made them invaluable to our operations here," said McKenzie.
The jets launched off of the USS WASP in early April and made their way to Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan. From there they and the rest of the MEU's aviation assets have flown almost daily missions throughout Afghanistan.
The Harriers have used nearly every weapon or gadget that can be strapped to it while in Afghanistan, including 25-mm. guns, 5-inch rockets and laser-guided bombs. In addition to deadly close air support, the jets have also provided the MEU with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance using their Litening II targeting pods.
"It is always satisfying to support our Marines and coalition partners as they struggle to bring stability to these troubled nations," said Capt. Geoffrey S. Eich, a pilot from Thousand Oaks, Calif.
Eich stated that the typical mission for the Harriers is planned for five hours, but with the availability of aerial refuelers they can remain airborne well past that time if troops are in contact.
"We have benefited from great theater tanker support which has extended our time on station and enabled us to provide more responsive support for the coalition warrior on
the ground within southern Afghanistan," said Powers.
Combat is something these pilots are getting used to, as most of them flew multiple missions last year in Iraq supporting the push to Baghdad.
But all the high tech weaponry and years of pilot training take a back seat to the real secret behind the det's success: the Marines who maintain the jets.
The detachment's officer-in-charge, Lt. Col. Sean C. Blochberger, said the most important component to their success "has been the Marines who, day after day, have been able to deliver ready-to-fly aircraft whenever the MEU needed them. Having jets available for the mission is a key factor as the most skilled pilots cannot do their job without jets to fly and weapons to employ on the enemy."
In addition to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced), the 22nd MEU (SOC) consists of its Command Element, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines and MEU Service Support Group 22. The MEU is in Afghanistan conducting combat and civil military operations as Task Force Linebacker alongside elements of the Army's 25th Infantry Division.
For more information on the 22nd MEU (SOC)'s role in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, visit the unit's web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.