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Capt. Jahmar Resilard and Capt. Austin Smith were hurtling over the Pacific Ocean at 280 miles per hour. From inside the cockpit of their U.S. Marine Corps fighter jet, they kept their eyes on the hulking fuel tanker flying ahead. Off to their right, two Marines in a second jet assigned to Fighter Attack Squadron 242 did the same.
The moon was below the horizon. The lights on all three aircraft were turned off. In total darkness, 50 miles off the coast of Japan, the two jets were to stick their noses into fuel hoses trailing behind the tanker's wings.
Even for the most prepared aviators, the training mission was not simple. Doing it at night made it even trickier. The night vision goggles fastened to their faces badly constricted how much they could see, like wearing binoculars to operate heavy equipment.
It didn't help that Resilard had only executed a nighttime refueling once before in his career, more than a year earlier. His qualification to do so had formally lapsed, but no one realized it because a known glitch in the Marine Corps' training tracker had yet to be fixed.
Resilard gained on the tanker, a behemoth capable of carrying more than 12,000 gallons of fuel. He connected gingerly to the hose.
“Good flow," Smith assured him from the backseat of their cockpit.
The second Hornet had connected to the tanker's other fuel hose. As the gas poured in at a rate of hundreds of gallons a minute, the three Marine Corps aircraft turned a wide, careful oval inside the safety of their approved airspace.
The December 2018 flight was part of a week of hastily planned exercises that would test how prepared Fighter Attack Squadron 242 was for war with North Korea. But the entire squadron, not just Resilard, had been struggling for months to maintain their basic skills. Flying a fighter jet is a highly perishable skill, but training hours had been elusive. Repairs to jets were delayed. Pleadings up the chain of command for help and relief went ignored.
“Everyone believes us to be under-resourced, under-manned," the squadron's commander wrote to his superiors months earlier.
And now, in perhaps the world's most volatile theater, a Marine Corps general had ordered up a rushed set of exercises. The aviators in the air over the Pacific, investigators later found, had been given so little time to adjust their sleep schedules in order to fly at night that inside their F/A-18D Hornets that night it was as if they were legally drunk.
“Don't have a good feeling," Capt. James Wilson, the pilot of the second Hornet, had texted to his wife before taking off that night. “Love you."
The Marine Corps has asked Congress for $3.2 billion to buy warplanes and other equipment that did not make President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2018 defense budget plan, according to a copy of the request obtained by CQ Roll Call.