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Posted: 9/22/2004 6:02:37 AM EDT
Issue Date: September 27, 2004

Navy Hornet squadron gets 1st deployment with Marines

By Christopher Munsey
Times staff writer

For the “Warhawks” of Strike Fighter Squadron 97, becoming the first Navy F/A-18 Hornet squadron to deploy with the Marines means getting more “expeditionary.”
VFA-97 left for Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, on Sept. 12 for a six-month deployment.

But before they left, 80 sailors from the Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif.-based squadron took a three-hour familiarization course on the M16 rifle, and everyone in the squadron learned how to don a protective suit and wear a gas mask, sitting in a chamber exposed to tear gas.

But when it comes to marksmanship skills on the ground, they’ve got a long way to go before they can truly hang with the Marines, said Cmdr. Paul Mackley, VFA-97’s commanding officer.

“Oh, they had a great time. We don’t have the greatest marksmen yet. We’re definitely going to have to work on that over there,” Mackley said.

The Warhawks’ pilots and aircraft maintainers would normally deploy aboard an aircraft carrier. On its last deployment, the squadron supported Operation Iraqi Freedom from the carrier Nimitz from March to November 2003.

But as part of the Navy and Marine Corps tactical aviation integration plan, VFA-97 — now assigned to Marine Aircraft Group 12 — is the first of three Navy Hornet squadrons slated to deploy with the Marines.

Working directly with Marines and living on a Marine base will be a different experience for his sailors, Mackley said.

“The ‘ooh-rah’ mentality is great,” Mackley said. “I think that’s going to be an eye-opener for the majority of our sailors.”Its pilots will fly 13 F/A-18C Hornets that formerly belonged to a Marine squadron previously stationed at Iwakuni.

Instead of practicing carrier landings and doing air wing training, VFA-97 pilots participated in a mini-Combined Arms Exercise with a leatherneck battalion at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., in March.

Once they’re into the swing of things on Iwakuni, “the training will be a little bit better than they’d receive on a carrier, only because you’re not so concerned about saving gas for recovery,” Mackley said.

All in all, the missions performed by Marine and Navy Hornet squadrons have more similarities than differences, said Lt. Jason Knapp, a pilot and the squadron’s air-ground weapons training officer.

“For the most part, they’re in the same business we are [both in], the type of flying we do and the type of training we do,” Knapp said.

The goal of the integration plan is to meld the two services’ fighter jet communities to save money over the next decade. Navy officials plan to take advantage of more technologically capable aircraft to cut the number of aircraft per squadrons, as well.

Five Marine Hornet squadrons have joined Navy air wings over the past several years, while five more will join Navy air wings by 2012.

All told, total Navy and Marine F/A-18 squadrons will drop from 64 to 59 in 10 years.
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