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VMFA-251, VFA-86 prepped to deploy

By Pfc. Nikki Fleming | | April 28, 2006

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Two Beaufort-based Hornet squadrons are counting down the final days until they will depart for a six-month deployment aboard the USS Enterprise.

The Thunderbolts of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251 and the Sidewinders of Strike Fighter Squadron 86 will join Carrier Air Wing One, Carrier Strike Group 12, which is part of the USS Enterprise Strike Group.  Their mission will be to provide combat power for national security directives as tasked by the President of the United States, according to Lt. Col. John Jansen, the commanding officer for VMFA-251.

“Most operations will be conducted within the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf areas,” Jansen said.  However he added, “Anything can change in the middle and towards the end.”

The cruise will also include several port visits, but the only ones currently confirmed are the first two ports in Croatia and Greece, according to Jansen. 

Preparing to deploy aboard a carrier is a grueling process, according to Capt. Jay Zarra, a Thunderbolt pilot.  Both squadrons have already spent many days away from their families – either at sea aboard the ship or at other training bases – in order to complete the rigorous work-ups required.

“As with any training it was hard, but it was certainly necessary for our squadron,” Zarra said. “We had to do it. The work-ups helped transfer our squadron to a carrier squadron to be able to work along side the Navy squadrons.”

The work-ups not only included Navy-specific training, but required Marine Corps annual training.

“We were sent to Jacksonville, Florida, for firefighting training,” said Lance Cpl. Antonio Brown, an administrative clerk for VMFA-251. “Then we had to go through damage control training, still do all of our Marine Corps training - such as going to the rifle range, and pistol range. We also had a Mission Oriented Protective Posture Familiarization Training all day here at the squadron where we had to wear the gear and still perform our daily jobs.”

Another critical piece of preparing for a carrier deployment is training pilots to land aboard the carrier both day and night.  Training for the carrier landings takes place both at land and at sea, although nothing can truly simulate the deck of a carrier.

“Each day pilots are running three to four sessions (of Field Carrier Landing Practices), one session includes eight landings,” said Navy Lt. Adam Poth, a Sidewinders pilot. “The airfield is the closest condition to the aircraft carrier we can get, but there’s nothing quite like the ship.”

The long process of getting ready for the boat can take a toll on the squadrons, according to Jansen.

“The squadron has been through more challenges than any other squadron in MAG-31 over the past year and a half,” said Jansen. “These Marines have been able to overcome more challenges and have done very well doing so. These Marines have put in a lot of hard work. They have earned the right to say that they are ready.”

While the deployment will include long working hours and time spent away from home, Marines and sailors alike are anxiously anticipating their chance to conduct real-world missions.

“I’m excited,” said Brown. “I’ll be doing my job, helping any Marine possible, and I get the chance to travel the world and see places that I thought I never would be. How many people get the chance to say they were paid to visit some of the possible ports that we have planned to stop in. I’m ready to go, so let’s go!”

A former Thunderbolt commanding officer recently visited the squadron to personally wish them good luck on their upcoming deployment.

“They look good, they fly well, their equipment is in better shape, their Marines are better trained,” said retired Maj. Gen. Thomas Wilkerson.  “The Thunderbolts are more ready to deploy in my judgment to a war zone than any Thunderbolt squadron before.”

The Thunderbolts are ready to go, but they couldn’t have done it without the help and support from the rest of MAG-31’s squadrons, according to Jansen.

“Everyone tries to pull together,” said Jansen. “It can be kind of painful pulling squadrons to help the next squadron out the door. Squadrons give up aircraft parts, Marines and then right at the bitter end they will have Marines come over to launch our aircraft. If we didn’t have their help, we would definitely be having a harder time getting up to this cruise.”

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