The Wing

By lex, on June 1st, 2009

Carrier Air Wing 11, now ably led by CAPT Brett “Pops” Batchelder – I think I may have flown an instructional hop with him once when he was a lieutenant junior grade in flight school – was my last air wing as a squadron commanding officer, but it took me a while to recognize them: Of the seven permanently assigned squadrons, only HS-6 and VAQ-139 remained intact since 2001. There’s been a lot of churn.

The wing now consists of two Rhino squadrons, VFA-14 and VFA-41, with the former flying the single seat (baby!) FA-18E, and the latter the two-seat Foxtrot. The “legacy” Hornet squadrons were VFA-97 from Lemoore flying Lot XII Charlies, and VFA-86 from the east coast flying (I believe) Lot XV aircraft (at least they had the IFF interrogator blades on the nose).

The VAW-117 Wallbangers provided command and control in their E-2C+ Hawkeye 2000 aircraft – the eight bladed props are supposed to be quieter, more reliable and more efficient than the 4-blade versions I was used to, but taxiing around on deck they made a sound like an angry swarm of bees.

I never did like the notion of walking through a prop arc. Now it’s not even possible.

The Prowler squadron plans to upgrade to the EF-18G Growler over the next couple of years – what work had been performed by four crewmen will now be done by two. That’s going to be one busy ECMO.

HS-6, astute readers will remember, lost an aircraft and five souls just last week. The memorial service had been held a couple of days before we arrived on board. We walked past the closed door to their ready room on a routine basis, and I imagined I could still feel the pain of such a shocking loss emanating from behind that door. Imaginings aside, they flew their assigned missions of search and rescue and anti-submarine warfare day and night while we were aboard. Because that’s the way it’s done.

The wing looked good around the ship, tight formations in the overhead and good intervals between landing aircraft. Never saw a bolter, day or night, and only one foul deck wave-off with the arresting wire coming back. The ship was hosting Admiral Kenny “Pink” Floyd from Commander, Strike Force Training Pacific on board, and the ship and airwing team are by now engaged in a Combat Operations Efficiency evolution graded by CSFTP and intended to certify the team as “Surge Ready” – deployable with minimum risk to any region in the world in 30 days or less.

COE cert’s are all about the safe and expeditious generation of combat power – getting the jets on and off the deck as rapidly as possible in blue water conditions in order to get the carrier out of a predictable course (into the wind) and allowing her to use her prime advantage over hostile submarines; speed and maneuver.  Based on what I could observe, they should do fine, but the characteristic SoCal “June Gloom” has precluded the wing from flying much in the way of Case I flight operations – all I saw was Case II and III. With the low overcast, night flight operations were darker than a hat full of a**holes, and I’d be lying to you if I told you I missed that part of the business very much. Still, CVW-11 was putting it down in the spaghetti each and every time, with only a single “taxi” one wire to make things interesting. Welcome aboard, Sparky!

VFA-97, commanded by CDR “Stoner” Preston – an old friend – was a good host to the bloggerrati, with young officers joining us at meals (except, you know: breakfast) and opening up their ready room for a briefing to the DVs. A young lieutenant “from Jersey” y-clept LOFAR was our briefer, and did a great job of it, although perhaps laying it on a little thick at times. If he’s really working 14 hour days routinely as a lieutenant while ashore, kid’s going to have a hell of a time as a department head. The XO I had not met before, but he said he knew of me “by reputation.”

I didn’t do it, I swear, and you can’t prove a thing. The deck was up. The sun was in my eyes. There was an earthquake. A terrible flood.

She said she was 18.

Funny thing about ships and squadrons, though. You can walk aboard a Nimitz-class carrier and feel right at home, even as a guest. The ship is so large, and her complement so many that even an old fart like me can blend into the woodwork. Maybe he’s a DV, maybe he’s a tech rep – who knows?

When you walk into the hermetically sealed culture of a single-seat FA-18 squadron ready room, behind all the welcoming smiles and generous extensions of time and effort, you know this: You are not one of them.

Being one of them means qualification, immersion, hard work, sacrifice and laughter. It also means being night current. It means feeling your heart skip when the director gives the blueshirts the signal to break you down, and take you to the cat. It means sitting at full power on the cat with the engines screaming behind you, a darkness like moist black velvet in front of you, and monstrous forces trembling in the balance. It means hoping for perfection from a thousand different things all chained together, from software loads to aircraft hydraulic systems, from catapult elongation and wind over the deck calculations.  It means 19 year old ABE’s in the catapult equipment spaces trying their hardest to stay awake at the end of an 18 hour work day and attending to their duty. It means all of these things, and all of these people working together perfectly. If all those things line up, it means taking the jet back from the flight control computers at the end of a hand’s off cat shot into the inky darkness and climbing her away from an undifferentiated and patient sea.

And an hour and a half later, it’ll mean putting her back down in the spaghetti again. Which in the day time is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. But at night?

It’s harder than Chinese algebra.

Been there, done that.

Got the t-shirt(s).

 

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Filed under Naval Aviation, Best of Neptunus Lex

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