Last sprint freelance journalist Ed Darack embedded with the Second Marine Air Wing, based in Al Asad Air Base, which sprawls across 19 square miles of Anbar province, in the northern Iraqi desert. Roughly 17,000 U.S. military personnel and support staff work at the base and are responsible for dominating airspace the size of South Carolina. Daily flights have taxed the Marine aircraft and crews, with some aircraft flying at five times the rate of other services’ aircraft in theater, according to AV-8B Harrier pilot Captain Ryan Hough. “There are always aircraft flying or on standby to handle the logistical, combat, and intelligence needs of the Marines on the ground,” he says.
Aviators told Darack that the missions these days were more likely to be reconnaissance and shows of force. “Our forces have made a tremendous amount of progress with the Iraqi people, so releasing ordnance is a last resort,” says Harrier pilot Major Kain Anderson. Darack had access to virtually all the kinds of aircraft currently flown by the U.S. Marine Corps—the V-22 Osprey will be joining the Corps in the fall—and an attached Army medical helicopter unit, at work from their improvised home at Al Asad.