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VMFA-251, VFA-86 soar through first week at NAS Fallon

By Lance Cpl. Zachary Dyer | | January 20, 2006

The Marines and sailors of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251 and Navy Strike Fighter Squadron 86 took to the Nevada skies Jan. 9-14 during the first week of their detachment aboard Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev.

The purpose of the detachment is for all of the squadrons of Carrier Air Wing 1 to learn how to work together in an environment where the operational tempo is increased and the missions are tailored to resemble the environment CVW-1 will face when they deploy aboard the USS Enterprise later this year.

“Basically, it will help the air wing become a more cohesive unit as a whole, ” said Navy Lt. Adam Poth, a Sidewinders pilot.

The pilots, aircraft mechanics and ordnancemen have thus far stepped up to the challenges presented by the detachment. To ease themselves into the rigorous pace demanded by deployment, the squadrons started the detachment with the plan to start small - flying basic sorties with aircraft from one squadron, then work their way up to complicated missions requiring coordination between multiple squadrons in CVW-1, according to Poth.

The training for pilots started before the Marines and sailors of both squadrons even set foot aboard NAS Fallon.

“The pilots flew across the country, and that was just a ferry flight to get out here,” said Maj. Michael Sobkowski, the operations officer and a pilot for the Thunderbolts. “But we combined the ferry flight with a bunch of tactical training. Normally guys just try to get out of town and get here, but we combined it with some training because a lot of guys had been out of the cockpit over the holiday break.”

The training on the ferry flight included air-to-air training and the employment of Joint Direct Attack Munitions on preplanned ground targets, according to Sobkowski.

Once the squadrons arrived at NAS Fallon on Jan. 7, the Marines and sailors began working at a frantic pace, flying eight to 12 sorties per day, and providing the maintenance and the ordnance to keep the aircraft in the air and give them the means to destroy their targets.

Most of the sorties during the first week were air-to-air and air-to-ground training flights, but some were currency flights, allowing pilots to keep up their currency in their aircraft.

“We’ve been doing a lot of unit level training so far, mostly bombing flights,” Poth said. “We’re just getting back up to speed after the holiday break. Next week is when we will start doing coordinated flights with the entire air wing”

Starting Jan. 12, the squadrons began flying more complicated sorties. The Thunderbolt pilots participated in a pre-strike sweep, where they had to achieve local air superiority against “bandit” pilots flying F-16s and F-5s to simulate enemy aircraft. The pilots also went through surface-to-air counterattacks, where planned ground targets were defended by anti-air defenses, according to Sobkowski.

The week was not only full of training flights for the pilots, but with  classes and lectures as well.

“One course taught experienced aircrew in the squadrons how to integrate the other elements of not only the air wing, the ship, and the battle group, but also joint assets from the Air Force and the Army,” Sobkowski said.

Another course, on weaponeering, taught pilots the capabilities of each of the weapons that they can employ from their aircraft, and how to determine what weapon can accomplish the commander’s intent most effectively and efficiently, according to Sobkowski.

The squadrons are moving at a operational tempo that is far greater than what they are used to back at Fightertown. Superior maintenance is what has allowed the squadrons to keep their F/A-18C’s in the air and out of the hangar, according to Sobkowski.

“The maintenance effort to make it possible has been phenomenal,” Sobkowski said. “The maintenance department has really anchored us in the quality and capability of our combat systems to make it possible to do a lot of these missions.”

Keeping up with the maintenance demands of the operational tempo is easier at Fallon than it is in Beaufort, according to Staff Sgt. Robert Young, a maintenance controller for VMFA-251.

“It is better here at Fallon because we have a bigger pool of resources to draw from,” Young said. “At (Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort) our supply is out at (Marine Aircraft Logistics Squadron 31). Here, everyone’s supply package is our supply package.”

The operational tempo will only increase as the days go by on the detachment, according to Sobkowski.

“Next week we are going to start some large force exercise flights,” Sobkowski said. “Where we practice not only specific training areas and specific weapons for us, but we are going to practice integrating with the entire air wing in order to hit a target. Depending on how well something is defended, you can’t just launch four F/A-18’s and expect to achieve success. You are going to need fighter escorts. You are going to need (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) support. You will need electronic surveillance. You will need someone to control us. And you will need search and rescue capabilities to recover the aircrew if something happens.”

Both Sobkowski and Poth agree that things have gone well for both squadrons during the first week of the detachment, and that both the Thunderbolts and the Sidewinders will come away better prepared for their deployment aboard the USS Enterprise later this year.

“The transition has been good, we’re up and running,” Poth said. “We are looking forward to flying with the air wing for the next couple of weeks.”