Welcome Home: Sidewinders, Thunderbolts return from USS Enterprise

18 Nov 2006 | Lance Cpl. Monique Smith

Two Beaufort-based squadrons returned to the Air Station Friday and Saturday, completing a historic seven-month deployment aboard the USS Enterprise.

Approximately 400 Marines and sailors from the Sidewinders of Navy Strike Fighter Squadron 86, the Thunderbolts of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251 and a detachment of Stingers from Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 31 embarked aboard the Enterprise late April and early May as members of Carrier Air Wing One, along with about 7,000 other service members.

The Enterprise Carrier Strike Group is comprised of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise, the guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul, the guided missile frigate USS Nicholas, the fast combat support ship USS Supply, and the guided missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf.

During their deployment, CVW-1 aircraft delivered 65,000 pounds of ordnance, including 137 precision weapons, providing unprecedented support of Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. They completed more than 8,300 sorties - of which 2,186 were combat missions - while flying more than 22,500 hours – including nearly 12,000 hours of combat missions - and made 6,916 day and night arrested carrier landings.

“Carrier Air Wing One and the entire Enterprise Strike Group team were prepared to effectively support a variety of missions,” said Navy Capt. Mark Wralstad, the commanding officer of CVW-1. “We were able to be flexible and responsive, engaged our nation’s enemies from the sea and engaged our friends and allies from the flight deck of Enterprise. The entire strike group helped to set the conditions for security and stability throughout the world.”

“This has been our longest deployment since 2003 and everyone was very flexible,” said Cmdr. Rick McCormack, the commanding officer of VFA-86. “They did an awesome job and I am happy everyone is home safe.”

Four months into the deployment, the Thunderbolts were called upon to move ashore to Camp Al Asad, Iraq, and fly land-based combat missions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom - marking the first time ever that a Marine F/A-18 squadron has detached from a carrier.

“The highlight and most unique thing about this deployment was the squadron’s ability to pack up and move into Al Asad in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom,” said Lt. Col. Michael Orr, the commanding officer of VMFA-251.

Pilots from three squadrons, VFA-86, VMFA-251 and VFA-136, cycled from the carrier to Camp Al Asad in order to maintain their carrier landing proficiency, according to Maj. Kevin Massett, the operations officer for VMFA-251.

This also allowed the air wing to support missions in both Operation Iraqi and Enduring Freedom - successfully making the Enterprise the first ever strike group and air wing to provide simultaneous dual-theater combat operations from a single aircraft carrier.

“I think this proves without a doubt that this is our job as Marines,” said Sgt. Maj. Michael Gonzales, the sergeant major for VMFA-251. “We can pretty much go in any clime and place.”

Amidst the hectic operational tempo, both squadrons were able to visit many countries on their cruise. Hundreds of sailors and Marines were able to visit Split, Croatia; Souda Bay, Greece; Pusan, Korea; Hong Kong; Singapore; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Lisbon, Portgual.

"One of the greatest advantages of deploying on a carrier is all the ports you get to see around the world," said Navy Lt. Travis Mann, a Sidewinders pilot.

"The highlight of the deployment for me was all the port calls we were able to make," said Cpl. Juan Duque, a supply Marine with MALS-31. "It was a once in a lifetime experience."

When it was all said and done, the Marines and sailors were glad to come back to Beaufort in time for the holidays with their families and friends.

"This deployment was an absolute success thanks in large part to the Marines and sailors in both the squadrons," Orr said.

"It feels wonderful to be home," said Capt. Joe Yoskovich, a Thunderbolts pilot. "The feeling is beyond words."

“This is what our job is,” Gonzales said. “Our job isn’t to sit around and twiddle our thumbs, our job is to find the bad guys and take care of business and that’s exactly what we did. This is what we’re about.”

During the deployment, the Enterprise steamed nearly 60,000 miles from its homeport in Norfolk, Va., conducting operations in the 5th, 6th and 7th Fleet Areas of Responsibility. The strike group includes more than 7,500 Marines and sailors.

The squadrons of CVW-1 include the Sidewinders of Navy Strike Fighter Squadron 86, the Checkmates of VFA-211, the Knighthawks of VFA-136, the Thunderbolts of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251, the Screwtops of Airborne Early Warning Squadron 123, the Rooks of Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 137, the Maulers of Sea Control Squadron 32, the Rawhides of Carrier Logistics Support 40, and the Dragonslayers of Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 11.