VMAT-203 Hawks, Teaching the Ways of the Marine Corps Harrier
More than 40 years ago, Marine Attack Training Squadron 203 began fielding the Hawker Siddeley AV-8A Harrier, in preparation for the Marines’ transition from A-4 Skyhawks to Harriers as their frontline attack jet. VMAT-203, known as the Hawks, has consistently provided fully trained Harrier pilots and ground crew since the jet’s introduction, as well as when improvements have been made to the Harrier fleet.
The major changes to the Harrier went from the original AV-8A to the upgraded –C version, and then during transition from the –Cs into the redesigned AV-8B Harrier II. Finally, more upgrades have incrementally added night attack, and in some examples, airborne radar too. The Hawks have led the way during each incremental improvement, training the pilots and maintenance crewmembers over these four-plus decades. Here’s a short look at the history of the squadron, and how a Marine pilot becomes a Harrier II pilot today through VMAT-203’s instruction.
Origins of the Hawks
On July 1, 1947, Marine Training Squadron 1 (VMT-1) was established at MCAS Cherry Point NC. Equipped with North American SNJs and Vought F4U Corsairs, the squadron conducted instrument training through November 30, 1951, when it was merged into Marine Training Group 20.
In 1958, VMT-1 was again re-established as a stand-alone squadron with Grumman F9F Cougars and Lockheed TV-2 Shooting Stars. As before, the squadron was based at MCAS Cherry Point; it was tasked with transitioning pilots into swept wing aircraft (as the F9F Cougar was), and instrument flight training. On July 2, 1967, VMT- 1 received their first McDonnell TA-4F Skyhawk. By December of 1967, VMT-1 was disestablished, and immediately re-established as Marine Training Squadron 203 (VMT-203). The final TF-9 (F9F) Cougars were retired from squadron use in that December.
On May 1, 1972, the squadron was re-designated as Marine Attack Training Squadron 203 (VMAT-203), to reflect the new mission of light attack jet training. VMAT-203’s purpose was to train replacement air crews for the Fleet Marine Force in the Douglas Skyhawk (an important mount of Marine Corps aviation) and on August 17, 1972, single-seat A-4Ms joined the squadron’s TA-4Fs; on September 7, 1973 VMT-203 received their first TA-4J trainer too.
On September 29, 1974, a new chapter for VMAT-203 began. Their first V/STOL Hawker Siddeley AV-8A Harrier was delivered, the squadron became the Marines’ only Harrier training squadron. Later, on October 9th, VMAT-203 operated its’ first Harrier sortie, the first of thousands. New twin-seat TAV-8A Harriers were procured and placed with VMAT-203 as well. Soon, the improved AV-8C was introduced, and the combined AV-8A/C training programs were all administered from MCAS Cherry Point.
On January 12, 1984, the new McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II arrived; VMAT-203 was the first Marine squadron to receive and operate the newest member of the Harrier family. From the beginning of 1984 through March, 1985, VMAT-203 administered training programs for both the AV-8A/C Harrier and newer AV-8B Harrier II variants, until the earliest versions of the V/STOL jet were phased out.
Successive programs have upgraded Harrier IIs; the single seat versions that VMAT-203 operates (around 16 airframes) today have night vision goggle capability that the original Harriers did not have. The original TAV-8Bs (17 original airframes) were upgraded with night vision goggle capability, improved engines and current (then) electronics, beginning in 2000. A year later, the Hawks received the first of these so-called TAV-8B TUP airframes (TAV-8B Upgrade Program) on August 2, 2001. The goal of the upgrade was to make the two-seat version as similar in function as the single seat jets.
To Become a Marine Corps Harrier II Pilot
To become a Marine Corps Harrier II pilot, your path to the cockpit of this game-changing attack jet will always include a stop at VMAT-203’s training facility at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina. The Hawks’ primary flying task is to train AV-8B Harrier II pilots. The squadron is fortified with around 30 Harriers, both of the single seat variety and the twin-seat “T-bird”. Normal Marine squadrons are assigned far less than this total.
To begin with, a Marine pilot will, at a minimum, have already earned his or her wings (there’s one female pilot training in Harriers as this article was written, and two more have served as pilots in earlier tours) through NAS Pensacola. Typical Harrier training includes some 35 simulator sessions, and 70 to 80 training flights that equate to about 100 hours before a successful pilot is assigned to a Fleet attack squadron. There is a two to one ratio of instructors to new Harrier pilots, so a team teaches and mentors a new Harrier officer to succeed in the next step in their flying careers.
As Captain Steve Zalewski, a VMAT-203 instructor noted, the training focuses on “brilliance and excellence”. These VMAT-203 instructors have gained vast operational experience before becoming teachers, including the MAWTS-1 course (Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course –WTI) and many hours in the Harrier. To teach Harrier flight training, each soon-to-be instructor will train a new pilot for around 100 hours while they themselves are mentored by a certified instructor… before they will be allowed to train someone by themselves. Captain Zalewski called his two years as an instructor as the most rewarding of his life, and it is an “honor and privilege” to train future Harrier pilots for the Marines.
Part of a student’s training curriculum while flying at VMAT-203 is to learn the duties of being a wingman. Marine Corps aviation exists to support the Marines on the ground. As a unit of two, you and your wingman work closely together to help the Marines meet their objectives on the surface. If you are constantly concerned about your wingman’s performance, then you aren’t focused on the primary ground support mission. Much of the “basics” that make wingmen work as a seamless team are taught at VMAT-203. There’s no room for guesswork when you join your next squadron.
Many of the initial flights in the jets will be aboard one of a dozen TAV-8B “T-bird” training aircraft with an instructor in the rear seat. Only three countries now operate the AV-8B (Spain, Italy and the U.S.) and the NATO partners operate at the most one or two TAV-8B versions to train their Harrier II pilots. The Royal Air Force recently retired their Harrier fleet, so the Marine Corps owns and operates the world’s largest tandem-seat Harrier fleet.
Some “T-bird” training fights are demonstration hops, with the instructor showing the student how things are done. For other flights in the T-birds, the instructor is along for the ride as the student demonstrates newly-taught skills. During a normal training day, up to eight sorties in the twin-seat aircraft are flown, and more in the single seat AV-8Bs.
The T-bird has similarities and differences from the single seaters, but operates pretty much in the same flight envelope. Both cockpits have primary flight controls. Both seats have their own slow-speed air sensor vanes mounted outside the jet to assist in hovering operations. Both the single and twin-seat variants have a water injection system to cool air that will allow for increased engine thrust for up to 90 seconds. This water injection system can be used in short bursts, or in one long application.
The fuel system is a bit different, as the rear seat has only a fuel quantity gauge; only the front cockpit has tank selectors and switches to feed and check individual tanks. A rear fuselage fuel tank was removed to facilitate the second cockpit, so the range of the T-birds is shorter than the standard jet too. Armament training consists of practice bombs fitted to a pair of rails on the T-bird, full scale and live armament is normally employed from the single seaters.
Now retired, Art Nalls, a former Harrier pilot, had some exposure to the initial TAV-8Bs while a test pilot. The Marines couldn’t just purchase a Harrier trainer, so the TAV-8B (like the forerunner TAV-8A) was equipped with at least a limited combat capability. During the 2016 MCAS Cherry Point Air Show, he noted to us that in a combat situation the rear seat could be removed so more ordinance weight could be carried on the wings, making the trainer a more valuable combat jet in a pinch.
VMAT-203 operates only the night attack variant of the Harrier II, a student will learn how to operate the radar found in the Harrier II Plus aircraft operated in some other Marine squadrons, after they graduate from VMAT-203’s primary course.
VMAT-203 and the Future…
Marine Harriers are to be fielded through the year 2025, so VMAT-203 will have a job to fill, at least through the beginning of the next decade. The F-35B Lightning II will replace the Harriers; there are no twin-seat F-35s, so the TAV-8B “T-bird” (and the F/A-18D Hornet) will likely be the last attack/training (dual role) aircraft with the Marines.
As VMT-1 stood up and down a few times early in its existence, and was renamed twice too, VMAT-203 could do the same in the future, as F-35s and other aviation assets evolve. The first F-35 attack squadron is still months away from becoming operational, and the other Harrier-equipped attack squadrons will transition from Harriers to Lightnings gradually over the next decade. The Hawks will continue to train Harrier pilots for years to come to address natural pilot attrition. The squadron has answered the call to train Harrier pilots for over 40 years, but its influence spans almost 7 decades, since their VMT-1 predecessors began operations shortly after World War II.