MARINE CORPS AIR STATION BEAUFORT, SC -- Two Beaufort-based squadrons returned from a successful training exercise with Carrier Air Wing One aboard the USS Enterprise, Nov. 22.
Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251 and Navy Strike Fighter Squadron 86 completed the month-long work-up designed to help prepare the squadrons for their upcoming six-month deployment aboard the Enterprise this spring.
“The purpose for the training was to get with the air wing and ship to familiarize us with each other,” said Capt. Daniel Berzack, a pilot with VMFA-251. “We have a small level of experience on a carrier. This was a good opportunity for the squadron to operate on a ship.”
The Thunderbolts and Sidewinders joined Carrier Air Wing One, which consists of Navy Strike Fighter Squadrons 136, 211, Navy Electrical Attack Squadron 137, Navy Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 123 and Navy Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 11, to take part in a Tailored Ships Training Availability exercise.
“We were able to work with all of the elements of Carrier Air Wing One. We preformed a lot of missions with the Thunderbolts and other units attached to the air wing,” said Navy Lt. Adam Poth, a pilot with VFA-86.
“This basically gives the ship and the air wing a chance to learn or refresh their abilities to operate around a ship,” Berzack said. “The first day starts simple, but it gets harder as we move on.”
The first lesson or refresher course the pilots’ receive is catapulting from the ship in teams and conducting air-to-air missions. According to Berzack, the emphasis is on honing pilots’ skills flying on and off the carrier.
“Safety is always a priority,” Berzack added. “So we always place a priority on safe take-offs and landings.”
As the pilots increase their number of traps and raise their comfort levels, the exercise ramps up and broadens in focus. They begin to practice other operations such as refueling, air-to-ground sorties and dropping live ordnance.
“As times goes on, we start to execute large missions,” Berzack said. “We do everything from a zip lip to a case three recovery.”
A zip lip refers to a landing performed by a pilot without any communication with the tower, and a case three recovery simulates landing during hazardous weather conditions with limited communications from the tower.
While the aircrews were practicing their skills, the enlisted Marines and sailors were also becoming accustomed to working on a ship, according to Sgt. Maj. Michael Gonzales, the VMFA-251 squadron sergeant major.
“We need to support the pilots so that they can drop bombs on bad guys,” Gonzales said. “I’ve got a bunch of hardworking Marines that work hours that you wouldn’t believe. The biggest things I expect of people assigned to 251 are motivation confidence and the all-around Marine Corps traits of leadership, accountability and dedication. It’s truly amazing what they do.”
Many of the Marines believe that working on a ship is a different work-style and lifestyle. This training gives them an opportunity to re-gain their “sea legs.”
“It was definitely a learning experience,” said Sgt. Demaur Gholar, a maintenance administration clerk with VMFA-251. “The squadron’s mission is to get back to basics, to become a boat squadron again. So we are finding new ways to do the same job. I didn’t realize how busy a Navy ship is, no matter what time of day.”
The last time the Sidewinders deployed for a six-month cruise they were working alongside the Checkerboards of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 312. Working with the Marine squadrons is something the Sidewinders look forward to.
“The last time we deployed we were able to work alongside our Beaufort Marine counterparts in dealing with troop movements and just sharing general information about the job,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Tarik McNair, an administrator with VFA-86. “Everyday on the boat is a new challenge and learning from the other units is what makes the deployment so interesting. Seeing how one group does things compared to another and finding the best way for everyone to accomplish the mission is a unique experience.”
Although working on a ship has inherent dangers and operations are fast-paced, most Marines and sailors felt that the one-month training was a good experience, according to Sgt. David Scott, a computer technician augmented from Marine Aircraft Group 31.
“Being on a boat is not like being in the rear,” Scott added. “Something is always going on and things are a lot faster. It was a good experience and the sailors were good to work with.”
“Everyone from the air boss to the aircraft handler had good remarks for the willingness from the Marines (and sailors) to learn,” Berzack said. “I really enjoyed the training and the pilots learned a lot.”
The Thunderbolts also had the priviledge of being the only Marines aboard the Enterprise during the Marine Corps Birthday. Using one of the two hangar bays, the squadron preformed their own cake-cutting ceremony and upheld the traditions of the Marine Corps, even at sea.