MARINE CORPS AIR STATION BEAUFORT, SC -- The Thunderbolts of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251 recently returned to the Air Station from a three-week detachment to Naval Air Facility El Centro, Calif.
The squadron departed to El Centro July 19, after participating in the Strike Fighter Advanced Readiness Program aboard Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev.
While in El Centro, the Thunderbolt pilots concentrated on air-to-ground tactics, according to 1st Lt. Jay Zarra, a pilot with VMFA-251. The squadron worked with some of the local ground troops and practiced close-air support.
“We went to El Centro to practice the bread and butter of a fighter attack squadron, which is close air support,” said Lt. Col. John Jansen the VMFA-251 commanding officer.
While training in El Centro, the Thunderbolts also dropped more than 250,000 pounds of ordnance, according to Zarra.
“We got a lot of training done, which was really good,” Zarra said. “We also got to see things blow up.”
The three-week detachment to El Centro allowed some pilots to drop certain bombs for the first time, according to Zarra. Many of the pilots dropped live Joint Direct Attack Munitions, MK- 84 2,000 pound bombs and M-20 Rockeye bombs. Pilots also practiced tank suppression, artillery support, wing signal mirrors, Type II close air support, urban CAS, low altitude night vision goggles usage and aerial refueling from a KC-130.
“We dropped a lot of bombs and got some good training,” Zarra said. “In the past 30 days the squadron managed to fly over 240 sorties.”
The pilots attribute their success to the hard work from the Marines in the squadron, according to Zarra.
“It was the Marines who made everything possible,” Zarra said. “Especially the ordnancemen, maintainers and plane captains who worked hard everyday.”
Another factor that contributed to the success of the three-week detachment, was the safe and efficient work of the squadron’s ordnance Marines in the Combat Armament Loading Area, according to Zarra. The CALA is an area used to load live ordnance.
“Although this was not the first time that we operated in the CALA, it was the longest,” Zarra said. “The Marines stayed out there all day in the very hot weather, and they did a great job of getting all the jets loaded.”
The Marines continuously armed the Hornets, and they did so with a relatively junior crew short on experience, according to Cpl. Robin N, Delagarza, an ordnance technician with VMFA-251.
“We had a lot of new junior Marines join the ordnance shop,” Delagarza said. “But they did really good. They learned a lot and stepped up to the challenge.”
It takes 20 minutes, at least three team members, a team leader and a quality safety observer to load a jet, according to Delagarza. Each jet can hold about 6 pieces of ordnance depending on the combination.
“There was a really fast pace out there,” Delagarza said. “We had one to two hours to turn over four jets. It got difficult at times because we had to explain a lot of the stuff to the new Marines. It was a good leadership challenge, but a good time.”
The training schedule was hectic, but the VMFA-251 Marines felt rewarded when the jets came back every day, according to Delagarza.
“It was nice to see those jets go out full of ordnance and return empty,” Delagarza said. “It showed us that we did our job well.”
Since departing Fightertown in June, the Thunderbolts have increased their combat effectiveness, according to Zarra. The Thunderbolts left Beaufort with a 73 percent combat effectiveness and in just a month have increased that percentage to 82.
“That amount of increase in such a short time is really significant,” Zarra said. “There was a high operational tempo for everyone, and they all met the challenge to make the squadron better.”
After the Thunderbolts finished their training evolution, the pilots sat down and had a round table discussion, according to Zarra. They talked about their recent accomplishments, combat effectiveness and the lessons they learned.
“This was the first time we have ever done this,” Zarra said. “It was great because we sat down and discussed every little thing. It was a big conclusion and summary of our detachment.”
The next thing on the Thunderbolts schedule is preparing to become part of Carrier Air Wing One, according to Zarra. The T-Bolts will join Navy Strike Fighter Squadron 86 and other units as part of CVW One in spring next year. This is the first time since March 2002 that the squadron has been part of CVW One, according to Zarra.
“We are going to join CVW One as a combat-ready unit,” Zarra said.
“We are going to bring to the table our expertise on close air support and air-to-ground capabilities. We are really looking forward to the deployment. We have a great squadron and excellent Marines that provide great support.”