AL ASAD, Iraq -- Lieutenant Col. David Lancaster always knew he wanted to fly airplanes, but it wasn’t until his senior year in college that he walked into a recruiter’s office and asked how the Marine Corps could help him follow his dream.
Lancaster liked what he heard and embarked on a Marine Corps career, earning his commission in August 1989. More than 16 years later, he flew his 2,000th hour in the AV-8B Harrier during a combat mission over Iraq. During this period, he served as the executive officer of his first Fleet Marine Force squadron, Marine Attack Squadron 223.
“It makes me feel old,” the Houston native said. “I remember being a first lieutenant in VMA-223 and it was only the senior guys who had 2,000 hours. It makes me proud, especially of the Marines I’ve served with over the years.”
Now, the junior pilots in the squadron look at Lancaster the same way he viewed his superiors more than a decade earlier.
“In the Harrier community these days, 2,000 hours is almost unheard of,” said Capt. Kevin Lipski, the assistant operations officer of VMA-223 and a Yreka, Calif., native. “Flight hours are so few to be had that to hit 2,000 hours says a great deal about the pilot.”
Few pilots have flown more military aircraft than Lancaster. He spent his time awaiting flight school at Naval Air Station Dallas, where the resident pilots mentored him and exposed him to a variety of airplanes and helicopters, including the F-4S Phantom II, FA-18B Hornet, CH-53D Super Stallion and F-16 Falcon.
“I was a young second lieutenant and they kind of adopted me,” he said. “They let me fly and ride in a lot of different aircraft, but the Harrier is the best.”
Lancaster was happy to fly Harriers for the Marine Corps because he said they aren’t easy, and they’re sole purpose is to support the Marine on the ground. Flying Harriers is a challenge, and that’s what he wanted.
“The Harrier is a pilot’s airplane,” he said. “It’s less forgiving than any other airplane I know of, so you have to be on your toes from start up to shutdown. All of aviation is unforgiving, but the Harrier is a unique challenge and a rewarding airplane to fly. I like that challenge.”
Lancaster gained further experience at China Lake, Calif., working as an operational test pilot and experimenting with new Harrier weapons systems, including the introduction of the Litening II Targeting Pod, a system used today with deadly effect by Harriers and FA-18Ds from Al Asad, Iraq. During the China Lake tour, he flew in the AH-1W Cobra as well as the FA-18F Super Hornet. Among other assignments, he’s been an instructor with Marine Attack Training Squadron 203, and worked as the air officer and future operations officer of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), where he served with then Gunnery Sgt. Courtney Curtis, now the sergeant major of VMA-223.
“We didn’t even know it until we started talking to each other,” said Curtis, a Panama City, Fla., native. “We deployed together but didn’t know it back then.”
Curtis, who shares an office with Lancaster for their current deployment, said Lancaster’s 2,000th flight hour was an impressive accomplishment, but doesn’t affect his opinion of the executive officer nearly as much as Lancaster’s demeanor around the squadron.
“He’s confident and very even tempered,” said Curtis. “I’ve enjoyed the time out here with him. They’ve been good days because he’s a Marine’s Marine.”
Lipski said Lancaster’s experience and knowledge about the Harrier are invaluable resources to the pilots of the squadron.
“He knows more about this airplane than just about anyone in the squadron,” he said. “He has such a grasp and appreciation of being a pilot. He has answers to even the most bizarre questions about the jet.”
Lancaster said he wanted nothing more than to help lead the squadron he began his career with. He enjoys the opportunity to mentor young pilots and serve with the young Marines he credits with his success.
“For me to fly 2,000 hours successfully, the maintenance Marines had to spend in the neighborhood of 60,000 to 100,000 man-hours working on the jets,” he said. “The amount of time those Marines spent turning wrenches for me to fly 2,000 hours is incredible.”
As Lancaster’s 20th year, when retirement becomes an option, approaches, his attitude is similar to what it was the day he checked into VMA-223.
“I haven’t made up my mind, but right now I don’t have any reason to retire,” said Lancaster who later mentioned that one day he’d like to take command of VMA-223.
“I wouldn’t trade this for anything,” said Lancaster.