AL ASAD, Iraq -- The Untouchables of Marine Wing Support Squadron 272 are busy turning pedestrians into pilots at the hot fuel pits on Al Asad’s runway.
Twenty-four Marines from the Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C.-based squadron work, eat and sleep surrounded by Al Asad’s flightline. The Marines work in two 24-hour, 12-man shifts fueling the base’s aircraft.
“Our job out here is expeditionary refueling service,” said Staff Sgt. Christopher L. Gillespie, a fuel crew leader who deployed with several Marines as an augment from MWSS-273, based at MCAS Beaufort, S.C. “We take it a step beyond that and work to be as fast as possible with the best service possible. The Marines aren’t just responsible for fueling aircraft, but for testing the fuel and maintaining the equipment. The list goes on, we do a little bit of everything.”
With jet engines blazing and helicopter rotors turning, the Marines in the hot pits are usually the last to see an aircrew on their way to a mission or the first to welcome them back. The impact the Marines have on the aviation mission motivates them to go above and beyond simply transferring fuel, said Gillespie, an Ashland, Kan., native.
“The pilots need us and the Marines know it,” Gillespie said. “All of them recognize that in the rear, some may consider us ‘do nothings’. But out here, this is the real thing. We are the main act of the circus. An MWSS goes nowhere without us.”
An average 125,000 gallons of fuel passes through the Marines’ hands into the waiting tanks of Army, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft daily. The Marines have seen as many as 60 aircraft a day roll into their hot pits.
“It’s a thrilling job because anything can happen,” said Cpl. Matthew J. Turner, a bulk fuel specialist and Erie, Pa., native. “Any airborne mission from this base could begin or end right here. We know we are making a difference because we see it everyday. Everyone out here knows and understands that role.”
The Marines are also responsible for most of the four miles of hose that connect the hot pits to the main storage and all the equipment used. Some repairs can be made by the squadron’s other sections, but it is important to avoid even the smallest loss of assests, said Staff Sgt. Matthew Ridgeway, the fuels maintenance crew leader.
“Without the equipment and vehicles in the fuels section, the flightline would shut down,” the Brewerton, N.Y., native said. “We work very hard to maintain this equipment, and there is nothing wrong with it. But, the constant use, the nonstop operation in this environment takes its toll.”
The quality of the fuel is another high priority. The fuel is visually inspected and tested regularly for water and sediment.
“We aren’t gas station attendants,” Turner said. “Quality assurance is very important. We are constantly testing samples, recording results and retesting. Every time we change a component, we retest everything. There is no room for mistake.”
Unlike the stateside version of their jobs, there is no schedule for when aircraft are coming into the pits, said Cpl. Steven Leskoven, a bulk fuel specialist and Wyalusing, Pa., native. This keeps each team on their toes, day and night.
“Missions aren’t preplanned out here like they are in the rear,” Leskoven said. “We have to be ready for everything, at all times, and that is what we’ve been doing. Mission accomplishment feels good, but it feels even better when you’re excelling at it.”
The hot pits are home to several Marines on their second or third Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment. The experience they are gaining will reward the job field in the future, Gillespie said.
“A month into this deployment and a private first class has more experience than a corporal who hasn’t left the states,” Gillespie said. “They are getting tons of hands-on experience. The knowledge these junior Marines are gaining out here will set this (military occupational specialty) up for years because they will grow into outstanding staff noncommissioned officers and officers.”
The fast-paced job keeps the Marines constantly thinking and learning, said Lance Cpl. Noah Palmer, a Nunda, N.Y., native.
“I worked on the ground side of fuel before coming out to the hot pits,” Palmer said. “Within two weeks of being out here, I felt totally confident I could do anything that needed to be done. We get a lot of training and information from the guys who have been deployed one or two times already. It has been an awesome experience.”
In the support world, making the customer happy is everything, and Marines in the hot pits are doing just that, Gillespie said.
“I continuously get compliments from pilots on the performance and professionalism of these Marines,” Gillespie said. “What the pilots do is important, but fuel is the blood of the Marine Corps. These pilots trust my Marines with that fuel. When the pilots see these Marines perform their jobs so well, they get excited about it. I don’t blame them. It is motivating to see the future of the Marine Corps working right in front of you.”