The Grim Reapers of VF-101

Marshall Lefavor reports on the US Navy’s only unit tasked with providing combat ready F-14 crews to the Fleet.

THE US NAVY’S restructuring programme has mode Fighter Squadron 101 (VF-101) the world’s largest squadron. Budget cuts, base closures and other shuffling forced the west coast F-14 Fleet Replacement Sqn (FRS) at NAS Miramar to fold, leaving VF-101 as the single site headquarters for providing combat ready F-14 Tomcat crews to the Fleet.

VF-101 Grim Reopen is at the heart of ‘Fighter Country’ at NAS Oceana’s Fighter Wing Atlantic. It operates at Oceana with nine Fleet VF squadrons. Besides feeding replacement F-14 pilots and Radar Intercept Officers ( RIOs) to the entire Fleet, the squadron requalifies crews who have been out of the cockpit in seagoing or shore-based staff billets and the occasional crews transitioning from other aircraft as well as replacement instructors.

With detachments at NAS Miramar and NAS Key West, the squadron is in almost continuous operation. At some hour every day, a VF-101 bird is either airborne, or having a spanner turned on it at some moment during 24-hour shifts.

The squadron is the centre of training for the latest tactical employment techniques for utilisation of the upgraded version of the F-14 in its relatively new air-to-ground role — the Bombcat. It has to do it all in a fiscal atmosphere best described as austere.

Two decades of Tomcats

The US Navy has a history of setting nearly impossible demands on aircraft designers and manufacturers for its choice of fighters. In the 1950s the Navy wanted one with long legs to fly combat air patrol missions and protect the Fleet. It wanted a Mach-plus fighter with a reliable target acquisition and weapons control system, and it wanted it big enough and powerful enough to carry a full ordnance load. Once it had all that, the Navy wanted it tough enough to withstand a lifetime of slamming into carrier decks.

The forerunner to the Tomcat was the famous F-4 Phantom II which had the impressive record of being flown by the US Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, as well as by 11 other countries as the principal fighter-interceptor-bomber-reconnaissance platform. VF-101 shared the task of providing Fleet fighter crews to man it during its glory days.

By the 1980s the Navy had already demanded one better. And the Grumman ‘Ironworks’ produced the swept-wing Tomcat fighter/interceptor which has been the Fleet’s combat-proven front line of defence, as the air superiority king for two decodes hence.

The F-14 AWG-9 system and weapons control system is still fully mission-capable, with its multiple target tracking, long-range capability, and over-the-horizon Phoenix threat. But the theme for the Navy’s power projection in the 1990s and beyond is STRIKE. In order to remain a player, the Tomcat had to add the air-to-ground role to its repertoire.

The aircraft was actually designed to accept the air-to-ground capability, including standard bombs, rockets, chemical weapons, flares, and anti-personnel weapons as port of its complement.

Early testing of the Tomcat’s delivery system exposed numerous problems. The programme was scrapped in the 1970s with no great outcry from the fighter community. Fortunately, the delivery technology was not removed from the software and it retained the function.

By the mid-1980s aviation planners realised that the aircraft would have an effective additional threat and maintain its mission if it carried bombs. A three-phased integration plan was implemented. The inevitable development of the hardware and techniques has enhanced this capability and has had a significant impact on VF-101’s aircrew training syllabus.

The Topgun course at Miramar underscored the importance of the attack role by adding it to, what was once, pure graduate-level fighter tactics. With Topgun talking bombing, that role now appears to be an integral part of naval power projection for potential future conflicts. The new emphasis poses no difficulty according to Topgun’s current CO, Commander Dick Weasel Gallagher.

«I can teach a fighter pilot to drop bombs easier than I can teach an attack pilot aerial combat manoeuvring.»

VF-101 is by no means out of the business of long-range Fleet defence as a complement to the other two-edged aerial weapon, the highly versatile and combat proven F/A-18 Hornet. Replacements churning through the syllabus at VF-101 quickly learn how they fit into the carrier-based scheme and the overall picture of early warning, strike, long-range fleet defence, and rotary-wing assets on deck.

Learning to drop ordnance has only added to me list of techniques to master for the replacements reporting in to NAS Oceana. They still come aboard facing months of intense training, constant evaluation, and a daily challenge in some form or another before becoming designated a Fleet F-14 pilot or RIO. The schedule overflows with classroom instruction, simulators, crew co-ordination, emergency procedures, instruments, cross-country, and the all-important carrier qualification. Bombing adds yet another dimension.

As a result of the added tactics burden, replacements are asked to perform as the equivalent of aviation decathlon champions. Not only does the crew have to master the intricacies of the highly complex, swing-wing fighter in every flight environment, they have to effectively engage the air-to-air weapons systems, manoeuvre against threat aircraft and weapons, and learn to deliver a variety of ordnance onto a ground target.

Waiting at the end of all this demonstration of skill and courage is the sine qua non (an essential requirement) of naval aviation; bringing the Tomcat aboard the boat. Volumes have been written about the perils of carrier operation — it is an art synonymous with Sea Power Projection. It is the lowest common denominator in the Naval Aviation equation. Replacements can pass every segment of the syllabus with ease, but if they’re shaky at the boat, they will not be flying Tomcats in the Fleet.

Fighters, an endangered species

The burden of responsibility weighs heavily on VF-101 as the Navy’s only F-14 replacement proving ground. The Squadron also must struggle amidst a growing attitude that the need for fighters may have become obsolete on the modern battlefield.

Millions of television viewers watched the drama of the Gulf War from the comfort of their living rooms. They saw actual HUD camera film of aircraft guiding ‘smart’ bombs into second-storey factory windows and blasting tanks off the desert. No one saw air-to-air gun camera film because most of the Iraqi fighters tucked their tails between their legs and headed for the safety of Iranian air space.

In the natural order of things, defence planners now tend to believe the need for aerial combat manoeuvring training can be regarded as a low priority. The demise of the Soviet Union seems to removed forever the threat of a sky filled with hundreds of aircraft engaged in a glorious swirling dogfight. Everything is smart weapons and saturation bombing. Air combat manoeuvring (ACM) will only occur in sporadic events on the ingress or egress from the target area.

Commander Chuck Wyatt, with the improbable callsign Cuddles, is the current Commanding Officer of the Grim Reapers of VF-101. He is well aware of the peacetime tendency towards complacency regarding the need for dissimilar air combat manoeuvring (DACM) readiness. He was previously named ‘Fighter Pilot of the Year’ by the Fighter Wing, logged many hours as a former Replacement Air Group (RAG) instructor, commanded a Fleet fighter squadron, and has flown actual combat missions. He has also operated in times of plentiful bogeys and is now witnessing the eventual shortfall due to this strategic thinking.

«The name of the game,» he tells incoming replacements, «is Air Superiority. If Clausewitz and Sun Tzu were still around, that would be their first dictum.»

Wyatt cautions against the trend of thinking that would remove fighter tactics from training. He points to the hard lessons about air-to-air kill ratios at the beginning of the Vietnam War and how the thinking had to be re-focused on fighter skills to bring these up to a respectable level.

Now technology is evolving at a mind-boggling pace. Some planners are already envisioning autonomous flying weapons that would remove humans from the cockpit.

«Based on my experience in Desert Storm, it will be quite a while before man is taken out of the equation. I can’t tell you who we will fight in the next conflict. I can tell you that the mindset will be the same — kill the enemy on the ground and in the air. That is the mindset we train to here in VF-101, make hair, teeth, and eyeballs out of the enemy.»

The way the Strike-Fighter theme is developing has already diminished DACM adversary support and brought about heavy competition for what’s available. Soon the Navy’s only F-14 FRS will have the Navy’s only adversary squadron to rely upon for the major share of bogey flights. The demise of the highly respected Challengers of VF-43 and projected stand-down of Key West’s VF-45 Blackbirds, another stable of dissimilar assets, will complete the decimation of the east coast active adversary squadrons.

VFC-12 has supported VF-101 over the decade that the F-14 has been at the spearhead of fleet defence. The Squadron has fully completed its transition from the vintage A-4 Skyhawk to the modern F/A-18 thus putting a definite real-world threat aspect into the picture.

What all the shuffling means is that the quality of DACM adversary platform and bogey drivers remains extremely high, but the quantity could become a problem.

Bogeys in paradise

While carrier qualification remains the most strenuous test in the VF-101 syllabus, the DACM detachment is the most rewarding. This is where the class points the faithful Tomcat’s nose south towards Key West, Florida for a solid week of pure tactics. VF-101 maintains a detachment at this southern-most air station which is truly the Valhalla for fighter crews.

Blessed with around 350 days a year of perfect weather, the area offers hundreds of square miles of uncongested air space, a splendid Tactical Air Combat Training System (TAGS), and a fine place to play after the day’s last mission. Here the replacements can be immersed in all the subtleties of the art of aerial combat manoeuvring.

As many as three hops a day, extensive TACTS debriefs, and miles of HUD camera film await. This is a world of self discovery. There are no major distractions during this phase. Replacements do not have time to think about a promotion board, the house payment, or the kids’ football game. They are too busy flying.

Fledgling pilots and their hard working RIOs are encouraged to approach the business of DACM with the same fervour that a mad dog approaches a meat wagon. For this is every bit the some wicket as carrier operations; if you cannot dogfight the machine properly, you will most assuredly be asked to find another military occupational speciality in the modern Navy.

Here also is the hunting ground where the replacement becomes intimate with the newest kid on the block — the Adversary Hornet.

Gone forever are the faithful A-4 Super Fox and Swine Bat. For many years, skilled hands and experienced minds extracted every ounce of manoeuvrability out of a 30-year-old, single-engined, sub-sonic attack jet with no radar, and still managed to give replacements a creditable look at the older MiG tactics as an effective starter kit. With the advent of the Hornet, VFC-12 launches a fourth generation, dual-engined, supersonic, radar-equipped, Darth Vader machine with what one of its pilots calls «the best HUD in the Navy».

Facing the Hornet means a full measure of realism in the DACM picture. The F/A-18 mirrors nicely the fourth generation adversaries that Fleet aircrews would likely encounter in a combat scenario. Its arrival dictated a significant change in the tactics required to engage this modern jet successfully.

Lurking also in the Key West warning areas, the aircrews will encounter VF-45’s impressive stable of wily F-16Ns and F-5s, plenty to keep the ‘dissimilar’ in dissimilar ACM as long as the squadron is alive. If they are fortunate, they might be treated to a rare visit of Topgun’s war machines and highly skilled instructors who enjoy few endeavours better than contributing to the care and feeding of replacements.

The replacements head back to Oceana with a full measure of confidence in themselves and the machine, for they will have been to the edge. They will have all the ‘Xs’ firmly in all the boxes and be ready to assume their places in a Fleet Fighter Squadron as fully qualified crews. And before the stamps are on their orders, another class is in the front door and has its nose buried in the syllabus. The beat goes on.

VF-101 forges toward the end of the century amid budget battles, ‘downsizing’, political turmoil, and the constant threat of base closures with only one mission in mind; provide the Navy with the best F-14 pilots and RIOs it can produce with the assets it has. The record is impressive.

The squadron has also been host to exchange crews from the RAF for over a decade. A number of them have set records for amassing over 1,000 flight hours in the jet during their tours. The latest exchange crew are pilot S/L John D Carter and RIO S/L Rich Hammer Powell.

As if maintaining a headquarters and two detachments of fighters and crews at three bases was not enough, VF-101 has the distinction of flying the F-14 demonstrations for the Navy on the air show circuit. The venerable Tomcat still amazes crowds with its raw speed, power, and eye-watering turn rate as it stays inside the field boundary in full afterburner in a 6g pull.

But its primary mission is to instil and maintain the fighter spirit. Captain Dale Snodgrass is the current Commander of Fighter Wing US Atlantic Fleet. Like Commander Wyatt, he is a master at flying the Tomcat. He was a renowned instructor in the squadron as well as commanding a Fleet fighter squadron in combat.

As Fighter Wing Commander, he knows first-hand that the definition of ‘Strike’ has to include the capability to defend against attack from a hostile airborne threat as an imperative to maintaining air superiority in any theatre of operations.

The skilled leader with the call sign Snort puts it succinctly, «Aircraft don’t take fighter pilots into combat. Fighter pilots take aircraft into combat.»

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