It's funny the way aviators talk about their airplanes. Every flier's got his favorite jet, the one he's most comfortable in and which behaves best for him. "Every airplane is different," explains one maintenance sergeant here at Al Asad air base in western Iraq.Each of Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 332s dozen F/A-18D Hornets has a slightly different combination of sensors and systems, which partially explains their unique personalities. But even jets with the same equipment tend to have different temperaments.In any squadron, the maintainers know the airplanes in ways the fliers don't. After all, they're the ones turning wrenches, pumping lubes and banging their shins on panels 12 hours at a time to keep the birds in the air for three or four hours every other day. And maintainers will tell you: sometimes there are jets that just refuse to cooperate. "Hangar queens", they're called.332 is lucky. It doesn't really have any hangar queens. And the hard work of successive generations of maintainers, plus a careful cadre of pilots, has achieved a notable distinction: in early 2005 the squadron marked 100,000 hours without crashing a jet, one of the best safety records of any Marine Corps jet squadron. This long streak of good fortune has made everyone a little superstitious, and the last jet that crashed, A-6E Intruder no. 05 back in 1978, haunts the ready room like a ghost. "Nobody talks about 05," says one officer.Jets are like diesel engines: the more you work them, they more reliable they are -- to a point. 332 is wringing more flight hours out of its jets than ever, thanks to the relentless pace of operations in Al Anbar province. At some point in the near future, there will be a reckoning. The flying here is not terribly taxing, just a lot of medium-altitude cruising, but still... most fast jets are good for only around 8,000 hours, and the Hornets here have eaten up just under ten percent of that total in the past seven months alone. Worse, the Marine Corps' single-seat birds will be swapped out for Joint Strike Fighters sometime after 2012, but no one's postulated a replacement for the hardworking F/A-18Ds.--David Axe
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