By Air Force Airman 1st Class Jonathan Bass
20th Fighter Wing
SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C., Aug. 4, 2014 – One pilot in the 55th Fighter Squadron here looks like any other pilot in the Air Force, but with one exception: he’s not an airman.
Marine Corps Maj. Eric Hugg is an airman for now, but he’ll always be a Marine.
Hugg, 55th Fighter Squadron chief of training, is a part of an exchange program that gives Marine Corps pilots the opportunity to fly with the 55th Fighter Squadron here.
A Rockville, Maryland, native, Hugg has been in the Marine Corps since 1997. He enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve as a combat engineer, but from his date of enlistment, he said, his goal was simple: he wanted his Navy wings. In 2003, he graduated from the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in criminology and a Marine Corps commission.
“I didn’t care [what aircraft I was assigned to fly],” Hugg said. “I wanted to fly fixed-wing jets, but I didn’t care what kind of jet at the time.” After the phase of pilot training the Marine Corps calls “Jet School,” he said, he decided that he wanted to fly the A/V-8B Harrier II, a single-engine aircraft capable of vertical take-off and landing that has been operational in the Marine Corps since 1985.
Once Hugg went out to the fleet, he was assigned to the 3rd Marine Air Wing, Marine Attack Squadron 311, at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona.
After Yuma, Hugg was a Harrier instructor pilot with the 2nd Marine Air Wing, Marine Attack Training Squadron 203, at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, where he got the opportunity to apply for the exchange program to fly with the Air Force.
“I was lucky enough to work with and know four guys who had done this exchange before me,” Hugg said. “All the guys that did this exchange who I got to run into had nothing but phenomenal things to say about it. They highly recommended it and told me that if I ever had the opportunity that I should jump on it.”
A big part of the Harrier’s mission is air-to-ground combat, and 55th Fighter Squadron and 20th Fighter Wing train for air-to-ground. But the F-16CJ Fighting Falcon also participates in air-to-air combat, meaning that Hugg had to learn another style of fighting.
“He’s faced a challenging situation,” said Air Force Maj. Byron Neira, 55th Fighter Squadron flight commander. “He’s had some learning to do. He probably knows more than anyone in the squadron about air-to-ground combat, but he had to learn the whole other side of what we do.”
Hugg dropped a bomb on all the expectations set for him, Neira said.
“As the chief of training, he has to know all the rules, regulations, the book keeping. He has to know all the [Air Force Instructions], and he’s not even an airman,” Neira added. “He had to learn how the Air Force flies in addition to learning to fly the F-16.”
Comparing the F-16 and the Harrier is similar to comparing apples to oranges, Hugg said. “The jets are completely different,” he explained. “At Cherry Point, there are around 30 events before a student is allowed to fly the airplane by himself. When I went to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, I had one flight with an instructor, then I went out and flew out by myself.”
With the F-16, tactics are the bread and butter of the airplane, Hugg said, while with the Harrier, basic flight skills are the staple.
Based on his own experiences in flying two airframes, Neira said, Hugg provides accurate and invaluable feedback for the Air Force. “We’re seeing now that the next generation of pilots doesn’t have real combat experience,” he said. “Hugg brings real experiences and can provide a different perspective.”
Despite the differences in service-specific language and minor difference between the ways the Air Force and Marine Corps do things, Hugg said, the professionalism, attention to detail and knowledge of craft that airmen exhibit is unbelievable. “I would feel comfortable flying into combat going all the way up to [Air Force Col. Stephen F. Jost, 20th Fighter Wing commander], and all the way down to the newest pilot in the squadron,” he said.
“From Hugg’s time here, I’ve learned that our sister services and us can work together,” Neira said. “We’re actually on the same sheet of music. The operations dovetail together.”
Hugg will fly with the 55th for two more years before he returns to the Marine Corps. Hugg said he will recommend the exchange program -- which has been in place since the 1940s -- to the next generation of Marines. “I’ve never had a more exciting or fulfilling experience,” he added.
Neira said Hugg’s ability as an F-16 pilot should be a comfort to any Air Force or Marine Corps pilot. “I’ve got complete faith in him as a wingman,” he said.