Located in Southern California’s Imperial Valley, a two hour drive east from San Diego and one hour west of Yuma, Arizona is Naval Air Facility El Centro (Vraciu Field).  Blessed with excellent year-long flying weather coupled with the proximity of several instrumented bombing ranges and associated Military Operating Areas (MOA), the facility is a key element within the US Naval Aviation Training system. Global Aviation Resource was recently able to spend a couple days at El Centro to experience first-hand the training activities and the bi-annual NAF El Centro (NAFEC) Photocall. Tom Gibbons and Kevin Wills report.

© Tom Gibbons - Global Aviation Resource

TW-2 utilised their T-45C Goshawks heavily during the deployment to El Centro. 167078/B-298 returns from another training sortie in the local area © Tom Gibbons – Global Aviation Resource

VAQ-129 "Vikings" Growler lining up for an intense DACT sortie with a VFC-13 "Saints" F-5N © Tom Gibbons - Global Aviation Resource

VAQ-129 “Vikings” Growler lining up for an intense DACT sortie with a VFC-13 “Saints” F-5N © Tom Gibbons – Global Aviation Resource

A visit to NAFEC will invariably guarantee good weather and a busy airfield and our visit in October was no exception with blue skies each day, high temperatures, an extremely busy airfield and an eclectic mix of types in operation. Flying operations start early, maximising use of the training day for those units deploying and by 08.00 aircraft were already seen returning from the first sorties. Throughout the day the whine of ground power units and aircraft engines spooling up prior to take off was a constant soundtrack through to sunset and sometimes beyond.

Units deployed to NAFEC included VAQ-129 “Vikings” from NAS Whidbey Island, WA with a dozen Boeing EA-18G Growlers, VFA-122 “Flying Eagles” from NAS Lemoore, CA with a mix of F/A-18E & F Super Hornets, VFC-13 “Saints” from NAS Fallon, NV with five F-5N Tiger II working with the “Vikings” flying Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) sorties, US Marine Corps, VMA-542 “Flying Tigers” with a quartet of AV-8B+ Harrier II and TW-2 from NAS Kingsville, TX with approximately twenty T-45C Goshawks. Additionally, there were a number of US Marine Corps rotary assets – AH-1Z ‘Zulus’ and UH-1Y ‘Venoms’ working nearby ranges plus a small UK contingent of Army Air Corps Apache AH.1s and Royal Air Force Puma HC.2s. A rich mix of aviation for even the most discerning of enthusiasts.

© Kevin Wills - Global Aviation Resource

A pair of VFA-122 “Flying Eagles” F/A-18F Super Hornets prepare to depart from El Centro © Kevin Wills – Global Aviation Resource

© Kevin Wills - Global Aviation Resource

The VAQ-129 “Vikings” Growler ‘colour bird’ vacates the runway at El Centro following a late afternoon sortie © Kevin Wills – Global Aviation Resource

The NAFEC biannual photocall is well known to most enthusiasts and with the variety of aircraft noted the previous day, the day was full of promise. Circa one hundred photographers were welcomed to the facility by the Commanding Officer, Captain Brent Alfonzo USN, Executive Officer Commander Jeremy Doughty USN and their hard-working team of men and women, many of who had volunteered their time to escort the visiting photographers throughout the day. NAFEC Public Affairs Officer (PAO) Kristopher Haugh and team coordinate the photocalls and use the opportunity to simultaneously offer a unique and intimate view of Naval Aviation operations and to temporarily use the visitors to provide a virtual PA team of over 100 people.

The resultant increased volume of post-event material made available by the photographers is of significant benefit to the PA team for community outreach and to promote the mission of the facility and that of the US Navy. Couple that with the fact that many attendees will promote NAFEC through social media channels and websites such Global Aviation Resource then it really is a win-win for all and an outstanding and enduring NAFEC initiative.

© Tom Gibbons - Global Aviation Resource

AV-8B+ 165425/WH-00, the USMC/VMA-542 “Flying Tigers” ‘colour bird’ lining up for departure © Tom Gibbons – Global Aviation Resource

© Kevin Wills - Global Aviation Resource

Post sortie circuit work saw a number of aircraft performing touch and goes throughout the day. EA-18G 169216/NJ-503 smokes some rubber on runway 23 © Kevin Wills – Global Aviation Resource

© Tom Gibbons - Global Aviation Resource

Pleasing the photographers with a climbing left hand turn on departure is VFA-122 F/A-18F 165926/NJ-145 © Tom Gibbons – Global Aviation Resource

© Kevin Wills - Global Aviation Resource

DACT time! A single VFC-13 F-5N departs El Centro closely followed by a VAQ-129 EA-18G Growler © Kevin Wills – Global Aviation Resource

GAR would like to extend grateful thanks to the following for their assistance in facilitating a fascinating insight into US Naval Air Operations at NAF El Centro:
 
CAPT Brent Alfonzo, USN Commanding Officer, Naval Air Facility El Centro 
CDR Jeremy Doughty, USN Executive Officer, Naval Air Facility El Centro  
Kristopher Haugh, Public Affairs Officer and PA staff at Naval Air Facility El Centro
Men and women of Naval Air Facility El Centro
 
Special thanks to:
 
Douglas Glover, 3G Aviation Media and Joe Copalman, Arizona Aviation Photographers without whose assistance the Photocall attendance simply would not have happened.