Continuing our series of articles about NAS Fallon, in this part Paul Dunn looks at Air Wing readiness training. Additional photography as credited.
In the first part of this series, we looked at the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC) in general. Some of the responsibilities of NAWDC are worth examining in a little more detail, and one of these is that of Air Wing workup training.
The Carrier Air Wing (CVW) is the primary instrument of US naval air power. Each of the Navy’s ten super carriers has an Air Wing assigned to it, with that wing being made up of different squadrons, operating different aircraft with different roles. In the past, the Air Wing was made up of much more disparate types, but these days all of the Navy tactical squadrons are equipped with versions of the Super Hornet, in the form of the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G Growler.
The deployed Air Wing has several more components to it, in the form of E-2 Hawkeyes and MH-60R/S helicopters, plus a detachment of C-2 Greyhound cargo aircraft, but the core of the offensive power of the carrier consists of Super Hornets.
Typically, the offensive component of the Air Wing will consist of four squadrons of F/A-18E/Fs along with a single squadron of EA-18Gs. Depending on whether it is assigned to an East or West Coast carrier, the Super Hornets will come from either NAS Oceana, VA or NAS Lemoore, CA; the Growler squadrons are all based at NAS Whidbey Island, WA. Helicopters will come from units at NAS North Island, CA; NAS Norfolk, VA or NAS Jacksonville, FL and the E-2s from NAS Point Mugu, CA or NAS Norfolk VA.
Under the Navy’s latest plans, each aircraft carrier goes through a roughly 36 month cycle, which includes a maintenance phase (post deployment) followed by a workup phase. After this is complete, the ship will deploy with her crew and Air Wing, for around 8 months.
Between deployments, the separate squadrons of an Air Wing will generally conduct their own local training from home base, along with participation in exercises and other events. For the most part, this training will not be as part of a full Air Wing, but this changes as a deployment approaches.
Once deployed onto the carrier, it is essential that the squadrons of the Air Wing are familiar with each other, and able to operate together as a team. Therefore, in the lead up to a cruise, it is very important to get all of the separate units together in one place, to prepare for operations onboard the boat. Although the number of aircraft in each Air Wing is somewhat lower now than during the height of the Cold War, it still requires a great deal of ramp space to physically accommodate all the component squadrons. This is where Fallon comes in.
With its extensive ranges and generally good weather, Fallon is an excellent location to conduct workup training. To that end, the airfield also has a very large, dedicated ramp, which can easily fit an entire Air Wing.
During GAR’s visit to Fallon, Carrier Air Wing THREE (CVW-3) was in attendance for the start of its workup phase, prior to an upcoming deployment on the USS Dwight D Eisenhower. CVW-3 is based at NAS Oceana and gives us a useful example to describe a typical Carrier Air Wing, and the workup process itself. The wing consist of four Super Hornet squadrons – VFA-32 Swordsmen (F/A-18F), VFA-83 Rampagers, VFA-105 Gunslingers and VFA-131 Wildcats (all with F/A-18E), all from NAS Oceana. In addition, electronic warfare support is supplied by VAQ-130 Zappers , based at NAS Whidbey Island. The remainder of the Air Wing is formed by VAW-123 Screwtops (E-2C Hawkeye), HSM-74 Swamp Foxes (MH-60R) and HSC-7 Dusty Dogs (MH-60S), along with a detachment from VRC-40 Rawhides (C-2).
During the early part of the workup, the Super Hornet and Hawkeye squadrons arrive first, and initially conduct their own training and qualification requirements. This includes improving proficiency in key skills and also affords opportunities to deliver live ordnance on range targets. As the training period progresses, the Growler squadron will arrive and the focus becomes more on joint operations across the Air Wing as a whole, building up skills which may be put to the test in the real world, once deployed onto the carrier.
This whole process is overseen by NAWDC, as part of its responsibilities as Naval Aviation’s primary authority for tactics and training development. In addition, NAWDC (along with VFC-13 Saints) supplies adversary support during the workup period. At times, to supplement the Navy’s adversary squadrons, contractors such as ATAC have been used in the past, and it is likely that other contract aggressors will be seen more often at Fallon in the future.
In the first part of this series, we drew a comparison between Fallon and the activities at Nellis AFB; to continue that comparison, Air Wing workup training can be considered to be broadly similar to Red Flag exercises. Both events bring together units with different aircraft and different roles and allow crews to practice joint training in a realistic threat environment. The experience gained in facing and solving ever more challenging tactical ‘problems’ gives crews increased ability and confidence to face real world scenarios, which they could well encounter when deployed on the carrier.
In facilitating this training, NAWDC is ensuring that the US Navy’s frontline fleet is sufficiently trained and equipped to face all manner of potential scenarios during a cruise. With America’s carriers providing a unique and formidable symbol of the country’s power and influence throughout the world, this training is vital in maintaining its crews’ readiness and combat edge.
In the next instalment in the series, we will take a closer look at the F-5s of the legendary VFC-13 Saints. With thanks to Zip Upham for his assistance with preparing this article.