ABOARD THE USS ENTERPRISE -- As the USS Enterprise heads into the Arabian Sea, the Marines and sailors of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251 and Navy Strike Fighter 86 prepare to support Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The Thunderbolts and Sidewinders are focusing on the mission at hand: supporting ground troops and providing combat power for national security directives.
“Although we will conduct Operation Iraqi Freedom missions, we won’t know when, where or who until we actually receive the word,” said Maj. Kevin Massett, the operations officer for VMFA-251.
In order to keep the Thunderbolts and Sidewinders on the same page, both squadrons are completing the exact same training.
“That's the good thing about (CAG-1), they have a standardized training and operations schedule for all the squadrons,” said Navy Lt. Larry Smith, the assistant operations officer for VFA-86. “It helps each squadron to known exactly what the other squadron is doing. Although we build more training on top of that as well.”
Although the squadrons have limited concrete information on future operations, they are preparing for any situation that may arise.
“Everyone is working hard to keep the jets clean and up,” said Maj. Michael Sobkowski, a VMFA-251 pilot. “Avionics is working very hard on all electronic systems, getting and making sure those systems are working correctly. They are also doing daily checks on communication systems and radios. Airframes have been working on the jets’ hydraulic systems. Everyone is staying busy.”
According to Petty Officer 3rd Class Edward Young, a line division sailor with VFA-86, the Sidewinders are making similar preparations.
“The squadron basically makes sure the jets are up and running,” Young said. “Each individual does what their supposed to do. We work as if we could possibly conduct combat operations at anytime.”
Ordnance Marines and sailors have also been doing a full system ordnance check on all the jets and familiarizing themselves better with the ordnance that the pilots may use while conducting these missions, according to Master Sgt. James Petrongelli, the ordnance chief for VMFA-251.
“As part of powerlines, it’s our responsibility to air up the tires, make sure jets get fueled and conduct daily turn around inspections,” said Lance Cpl. Truman Hohstadt, a powerline mechanic. “But it’s not all about one shop. Although each shop has different tasks, we all work together to make sure these jets are up for the pilots to be able to fly.”
While in Souda Bay, Greece, the Marines and sailors of VMFA-251 cut their last day of liberty short to ensure that all the aircraft were ready to support combat operations.
“The Marines sacrificed half a day of their liberty to come in and get our jets ready,” Sobkowski said. “The situation that we were in, being on an aircraft carrier, we can’t always turn engines and sometimes we can’t even touch a jet if there are flight deck drills going on. We needed to do it in order to help be prepared to conduct these missions, and the Marines and sailors did a great job.”
Although the Marines and sailors missed out on some liberty in Greece, the Marines felt that ensuring that the squadron had at least the required minimum number of jets ready to fly was more important, according to Hohstadt.
While the squadron’s maintenance Marines and sailors prepare aircraft, pilots are also preparing to conduct the missions that they may soon execute.
During their no-fly days, the pilots concentrate and study the tactics and procedures that they may use in Iraq.
“Each day the pilots have about four to five hours of training,” Massett said. “The big thing is learning the terrain and studying the map just like Marines learn at Marine Combat Training.”
“We are doing a great deal of map studies,” Smith said. “We break down certain areas into hot spots and each day we take one hot spot and study its features. Just like anyone else here on the ship, we have a number of drills to work on to increase our capabilities.”
Massett believes that the pilots have a keen understanding of what has to be done, although there is an unsure knowledge of the actual mission.
“It’s really the unknown, because we know tactics and procedures but we don’t exactly know how we will conduct those tactics and procedures until we get out there,” Massett said.
Based on the attitudes and the professionalism shown by the Marines and sailors of VMFA-251, the whole squadron is geared to stand up to the challenge, according to Hohstadt.
“We are ready,” said Hohstadt. “We are able and ready to do this. We trained together, we came together, now we’ll fight together, and in the end, we’ll come home together.”