MARINE CORPS AIR STATION, SC --
Families gather around and hold on to their children while gripping to handmade “welcome home” banners. The aircraft swishes into a soft landing, spouses stand, take a deep breath and search anxiously for their service member exiting the aircraft.
One hundred ninety-eight sailors with Navy Strike Fighter Squadron 86, also known as the Sidewinders, returned to the Air Station after an eight-month deployment aboard USS Nimitz, Saturday.
The Sidewinders deployed as one of seven squadrons conducting air operations as a part of to the Carrier Air Wing Eleven in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
“It was a great experience to work with other units,” said Navy Lt. Colin Quirino, the VFA-86 assistant operations officer. “Through workups and working together for seven months to accomplish the same mission we were able to establish a relationship.”
Carrier Air Wing Eleven flew combat sorties in support of OEF from September 2009 through January. During that time, VFA-86 deployed two aircraft, four pilots and 25 support personnel to Cairo West Air Base, Egypt to participate in the multi-national Bright Star Exercise.
The Sidewinders flights averaged six hours in length for a total of 2,200 combat hours and 450 combat sorties. The VFA-86’s aircraft flew close-air support for U.S. and coalition ground forces in the southern Helmand province.
“Flying there was more challenging than here because we weren’t doing training anymore, we were doing the real deal,” said Lt. William Vulliet, a VFA-86 pilot. “It was rewarding when we worked with the troops on the ground and they told us how much safer we make them feel knowing that we are there.”
The Sidewinders qualified for the Golden Anchor after achieving the Chief of Naval Operations Retention Honor Roll for two quarters. Navy Strike Fighter Squadron 86 was also awarded the Enlisted Aviation Warfare Pennant, which means the crew met all required qualifications for aviation during the deployment.
“The VFA-86 sailors performed exceptionally well on an extended deployment under a high operations tempo,” recalled Cmdr. Max McCoy, the VFA-86 commanding officer. “They served their country with honor while representing our Nation with dignity in foreign ports of call.”