VFA-31 Tomcatters, Keeping the Tip of the Spear SharpArticle and Photos by Todd Miller
July 25, 2015
visit to the US Navy Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-31 provides insight into the inner workings and challenges of a premier Navy squadron from Deployment – Renewal – Deployment.
There is no more powerful symbol of American military power than the Aircraft Carrier and associated Strike Group. Aircraft carriers project US military power anywhere in the world at any time. Parking a carrier just offshore in international waters sends an immediate message to nearby interests. If the carrier is the “spear” then the “tip of the spear” is the strike fighter squadron. US Navy Strike Fighter squadrons number about 30, and consist primarily of 12 F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets (Rhinos) or 10 F/A-18C Legacy Hornets. When not deployed on a carrier, these squadrons make their home at NAS Lemoore in CA, NAS Oceana in VA, or NAF Atsugi, Japan.
Don’t overlook it, as we go about our daily lives the US Navy has aircraft carriers positioned around the globe at the edge of volatility.”
The general public has but a glimpse into the life and activity of a US Navy Strike Fighter Squadron. Exposure often consists of photos of F/A-18s or other aircraft, or poster ready images of aircraft carriers sailing calm seas under blue skies. More likely than not, images from the box office hit “Top Gun” full of high octane fighter pilots come to mind. However the simple fact is that the daily activities of a strike fighter squadron are seldom discussed and we receive only sound bites of their deployments. Don’t overlook it, as we go about our daily lives the US Navy has aircraft carriers positioned around the globe at the edge of volatility. These crews are performing missions over Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – taking the fight to ISIS and keeping other threats around the globe in check each and every day.
A recent visit with the Tomcatters, VFA-31 at NAS Oceana not only provided insights into the incredible challenges and rewards of life in a Navy strike fighter squadron, it revealed the incredibly impressive system the US Navy has built to ensure the “tip of the spear” remains sharp.
The Tomcatters, V (fixed wing) F (fighter) A (attack)-31, is the second oldest US Navy Fighter Squadron, and traces its heritage back to 1935 with the inception of VF-1B, the Shooting Stars. The Tomcatters have come a long way from those Boeing F4B-4 biplanes that were flown as Shooting Stars. The squadron has evolved from VF-1B to VF-6, VF-3, to VF-31 flying the infamous F-14 Tomcat until its retirement in 2006. The transition to the F/A-18E with its more pronounced mix of strike and fighter capabilities coincided with the change to VFA-31. As can be anticipated, VFA-31 has a tremendous heritage of participation in US military campaigns around the globe. Historically, VFA-31 has served on multiple aircraft carriers and holds the distinction of being the only Navy squadron that has air combat kills in three wars: WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. A history of the Tomcatters can be found here. It is a common misconception that the Tomcatters are named after the F-14 Tomcat. A quick history lesson demonstrates the squadron was well established with the name Tomcatters prior to the arrival of the F-14 Tomcat, and had officially adopted the use of the bomb laden “Felix the Cat” as their insignia in 1946. Today the squadron creates distinction from confusion with the “F-14 Tomcat” by referencing themselves as “Fighting 31.”
VFA-31 is assigned to Commander, Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic (CSFWL) and Carrier Air Wing 8 (CVW-8). Most recently, VFA-31 was deployed to the US 5th Fleet Area of Operations (AOR) on the aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77), as part of Carrier Strike Group 2. Returning from their most recent deployment in November of 2014, reports indicate that CVW-8 “had amassed 32,611 flight hours, 12,548 total sorties, and 9,752 arrested landings on board the carrier USS George H.W. Bush. This included 3,245 combat sorties in support of Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria, as well as coalition ground forces in Afghanistan, with 18,333 combat flight hours flown and more than 120,000 lb (54,000 kg) of ordnance expended.”1
One can appreciate that such a high cycle of hours generates significant stress on equipment and personnel, and VFA-31 (as is the case with the other units in CVW-8 coming off deployment) has now moved into a maintenance phase.
We are just coming off the ‘Super Bowl,’ and entering into team rebuilding through the ‘off season’ to prepare for the next deployment.”
The Squadron Culture and Immediate Goals
VFA-31 commanding officer CDR Robert Bibeau describes the squadron’s current state, “We are just coming off the ‘Super Bowl,’ and entering into team rebuilding through the ‘off season’ to prepare for the next deployment (superbowl).”
Personnel recruiting, skill training, inter-squad skirmishes & pre-season games all prepare them for the next “Superbowl.” However, in a break from the sports analogy there really is no regular season or playoffs, there is simply preparation, and “Superbowl” – period. With deployments lasting around 9 months – it’s significantly more than a four quarter game to be operating at peak capability! The next 15 months CDR Bibeau will work with Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Alexander Wright, pilot and Maintenance Officer, and their approx. 200 service men and women to prepare the squadron for its next deployment.
Prior to becoming the Tomcatters Commanding Officer this past May, CDR Bibeau spent 18 months serving VFA-31 as Executive Officer. This smooth transition of leadership is standard practice in the Navy. CDR Bibeau has 3,340 hours in 26 different aircraft models, including 2,665 hours in F/A-18’s. A US Navy Test Pilot, CDR R. Bibeau served at NAS Patuxent River, MD as Ship Suitability Department Head at VX-23 prior to joining the Tomcatters. Ship Suitability addresses all systems that involve tactical aircraft interfacing with an aircraft carrier, such as catapults, arresting gear, approach systems etc.. Leadership within VX-23 exposes one to everything from the F/A-18E & F, EA-18G (Growler), F-35B & C, E2C Hawkeye, to the X-47B drone and the latest weapon systems and aircraft enhancements.
It is clear CDR Bibeau’s broad experience set makes him uniquely qualified to maintain the legacy of the Tomcatters, and ensure they are sharp, fully capable to complete any mission anywhere around the world.
Now and for the next number of months the squadron focus is on “blocking and tackling,” – basic flight and maintenance skills. Constant training and advancement of personnel is a critical part of the dynamic evolution of the squadron to prepare for the next deployment. During this time, all personnel will advance; from pilot, to section lead, to division lead; from plane captain to training a replacement, and onward to a specialized maintainer. The opportunity for advancement is near constant, and every activity is executed with purpose. As the months pass, flight training will move from internal activity, to exercises with other squadrons, participation in larger exercises, and then finally, pre-deployment participation in a large scale simulated warfighting exercise that will test and stress the squadron well beyond anything they will expect in deployment.
The Tomcatters are just coming off a mini exercise at Tyndall AFB in Florida that involved missile training, and along with their monthly exercises with fellow squadrons, will soon participate in a Green Flag exercise out of Nellis AFB. While air-to-air skills can be honed in the waters off the Florida coast, shipboard training takes place off the coast of Virginia, and air-to-ground skills are honed at NAS Fallon in NV. 15 months is a relatively short time to rebuild and prepare for the next deployment, so it can be appreciated that activity is constantly purposeful, a systematic march towards deployment.
Beyond the limelight of the strike fighter pilot, the squadron consists of a team and system that are far more impressive than what most see. It takes that entire team that is represented under the banner Tomcatters to keep the squadron’s 12 F/A-18E’s ready to perform any mission they are assigned. The Navy squadron structure is unique in that pilots and maintenance personnel are all forged as part of one squadron – logical given they will deploy to a carrier as one. The diversity in age, training and skills come together as a multidisciplinary team with a single purpose. Sharp and combat ready, all personnel ensure the pilots and aircraft are capable of performing any mission they are called on while at sea. As CDR Bibeau noted, he wished he could convey how much work goes into maintaining a Navy strike fighter squadron, “12 state of the art F/A-18E’s, 6 of which will be launched on any given day, 160 people working 12-14 hours days on a 110F flight deck or in the confines of a carrier hangar bay, 24/7 for the 9 month deployment.” It takes a championship caliber team with exceptional discipline, determination and skill.
The Strike Fighter Pilot
CDR Bibeau & LCDR Wright note that ultimately, all activity points to the flying. On a personal level, the constant is to be as technically skilled as possible to do the job. Each flight involves multiple grading exercises and a straight shooting debrief among pilots. Rather than fear criticism, naval aviators are trained to embrace it. There is only room for improvement, an inner hunger to be the best; procedure, precision, weapons, systems management, leadership, and flying skills. The squadron structure defines a clear culture where all members provide clear professional feedback, as well as embrace feedback. All are students, all are teachers.
Following recovery to the carrier we often watch coverage of the mission results as Headline news on CNN. Surreal.”
CDR Bibeau notes that it is hard to capture in words the personal satisfaction of accomplishments throughout his Naval career. It is a career that has provided countless opportunities for advancement, as well as the experience of flight in state of the art aircraft. Beyond tactical missions (not open for discussion) he reflected on the satisfaction of completing a mission executed with precision as lead of a division (a flight of four F/A-18E’s). “Following recovery to the carrier we often watch coverage of the mission results as Headline news on CNN. Surreal.”
You simply cannot discuss naval aviation without touching on the challenge of landing on an aircraft carrier. Carrier landings, the “trap” (as it is called), are the most obvious skill that separate naval aviators from all others.
The very first thing that came to mind as soon as I launched was ‘great, guess I have to trap now!’”
The violence of the trap is likened to dropping the aircraft from 2 stories. Frankly, many often refer to a trap as a controlled crash more than as a landing. The skill is relentlessly practiced and graded and becomes extraordinarily challenging at night, and in inclement weather. In essence, the pilot is targeting a precise area for landing of only 50 ft. (15.2 m), so the aircraft’s tailhook catches the desired arresting cable – all on a moving runway.
CDR Bibeau laughs about his first catapult launch off a carrier, “The very first thing that came to mind as soon as I launched was ‘great, guess I have to trap now!’ However as one gets many traps completed, confidence is such that you know it will be fine – not always pretty given conditions, but it will resolve itself.”
I say to myself, ‘Wow that is the hardest thing that I think anyone has ever done” as 10 other people do the same thing behind me’”.
LCDR Wright noted that each flight has its stages that require focused attention; launch, mission, recovery. In typical terms of compartmentalizing, one hat comes off, another one goes on. Still speaking of “the trap” one particular cruise brought a “eureka moment” to LCDR Wright:
“Returning to the carrier in a storm, I dropped into the groove in heavy showers. Radio contact advised me to call the ‘ball’ (also known as Meatball, or lens and refers to the landing light system on carriers that guides pilots to a safe landing). I could not see the ‘ball’ let alone the ship, and was just getting ready to abort, when a calm voice came on the radio, ‘It’s alright, I see you. Paddles contact, maintain approach.’ I did not see the ball, the paddles, the ship – anything until I was crossing over it! It was a pure trust exercise. Follow my training and the voice, and at the last seconds, the carrier appears out of the mist, and slam – you make the trap. My adrenaline really amped up as I taxied the aircraft and it was strapped to the deck. I say to myself, ‘Wow that is the hardest thing that I think anyone has ever done’ as 10 other people do the same thing behind me.”
“The Trap” is the silver cord that binds naval aviators.
CDR Bibeau and LCDR Wright have many years & hours in the F/A-18E, and consider it very capable to perform the missions asked of it primarily; fleet defense, force projection, interdiction, and close or deep air support. On the carrier, the Super Hornet is referred to as the “Rhino” so as not to risk any confusion with the legacy Hornet (there is no room for confusion of any kind on a carrier deck!).
The Rhino benefits from years of naval experience with the legacy Hornet, and as such has provided a very smooth transition for the Navy. Offering upgraded avionics, much greater fuel load, and increased payload the F/A-18E provides a significant capability increase, while working with a relatively known platform.
Pilots benefit from avionics upgrades, range and payload increases. More capable and “intuitive” avionics increase situational awareness. Greater range translates into increased loiter time for the Combat Air Support (CAS) missions which are now very typical (loitering on station near or over hostile territory waiting for target clearance). While return to the carrier in a legacy Hornet might be done with just enough fuel for two approaches, the Rhino almost always returns with enough fuel to make three approaches (not desired, but if conditions require). The Rhino also has the ability to land with more unreleased ordnance, ordnance that previously may have been dropped (cold) prior to recovery of a Hornet. The maintenance team benefits from the significant reduction in parts used by the Rhino, as well as improved maintenance systems and diagnostics on the aircraft.
While the pundits will argue F-14D Tomcat vs F/A-18E/F Super Hornet/Rhino – it really is a moot argument to the squadron (particularly given there are no Tomcat pilots left in the group!). The Rhino is a very mature, reliable airframe with superior avionics offering high rates of combat readiness and is very capable to execute any mission required. Nothing more to be said, out of respect, and discretion!
The Maintenance Team
LCDR Wright is responsible for the maintenance portion of the squadron. When one looks at sheer numbers, it is clear the vast majority of personnel in the squadron are related to ensuring the maintenance and readiness of the aircraft. All squadron activity is subject to a systematic discipline, and application in this area is readily visible.
It is eye watering to see the level of responsibility given to and taken by young people in the Navy, and it is ultimately rewarding to see 18 year olds become extraordinarily competent and responsible 22 year olds.”
Throughout the maintenance chain and on up to the pilots, each responsible member “signs” for the aircraft, putting their name on paper – aircraft inspected, serviced, fully ready for flight. It is a discipline of transparency that takes accountability to the required level considering the stakes involved. The cost of a failure potentially resulting in the loss of an aircraft valued at well over 60 million dollars, a highly trained pilot, and any corollary damages. It is serious business, and treated rightly so.
One of the most significant aspects of our military is the level of responsibility and opportunity the services provide to our young people. CDR Bibeau notes that, “it is eye watering to see the level of responsibility given to and taken by young people in the Navy, and it is ultimately rewarding to see 18 year olds become extraordinarily competent and responsible 22 year olds.” Not only are the rewards of responsibility and purpose evident, the Navy provides an opportunity for each enlistee to write their own future and once accepted everyone creates their own reputation in the Navy.
Aviation Machinists Mate Senior Chief Petty Officer (ADCS) Christopher Moore, is responsible for the 186 member maintenance group. He reports to LCDR. Wright, and notes the there are tremendous benefits to Navy service. Beyond learning a skilled trade and traveling the world, the job satisfaction of serving ones country, and being part of something extraordinary is palatable.
We hate you Navy guys. You get all the action, whenever there is something hot – they call you guys in.”
Senior Chief Moore holds dear the numerous thank-you letters he has seen his squadron receive from ground troops they have supported, “Thank-you, we were pinned down, and you guys came in and cleared a path.” Moore reflects on a previous cruise, when a Hornet had to divert to Kandahar in Afghanistan with an engine issue. The Hornet was given maintenance space with one of the coalition forces who were flying F-16s. When Senior Chief Moore arrived with team and parts to repair the Hornet, they noted the group gathered around and sizing up the aircraft. After introducing himself he was a little surprised with the comment, “we hate you Navy guys. You get all the action, whenever there is something hot – they call you guys in.” That’s Navy pride, the tip of the spear, the best of the best.
Where else does someone with a high school education get the opportunity to maintain multi-million dollar jets?”
Chief Warrant Officer (CWO3) Chree Emerson is tasked with ensuring VFA-31 has the right mix of skilled personnel in the squadron. She has the ability to draw upon available resources from throughout the Navy. However, as it is with parts, personnel are prioritized to fill squadrons that are deploying. Like many organizations, the Navy is also challenged to do more, with less. With that in mind, the squadrons are “right-sizing” to balance the correct personnel requirement given the lower maintenance workload required by the Super Hornet. Aside from the general job satisfaction of keeping VFA-31 populated so they can meet their objectives, CWO3 Emerson notes the ultimate satisfaction comes on those challenging days “when long hours are put in, and then, just in time the aircraft is mission ready, you watch it launch and accomplish its mission.”
Aviation Structural Mechanic Petty Officer 1st Class (AM1) Michael Anderson notes that the Navy has given him tremendous responsibility. “Where else does someone with a high school education get the opportunity to maintain multi-million dollar jets? It is all possible because of the training system and checks and balances that are in place.”
Not only has Navy life given the young petty officer a chance to travel to all corners of the globe, it has left him with a very tangible sense of pride – and meaningful contribution. When on cruise, with a jet rolling onto the catapult and preparing for launch, AM1 Anderson noted something amiss in inspection and halted the launch, potentially saving the aircraft and pilot’s life. By rank, one of the junior elements in the loop, yet with full authority as a member of the team to make the call.
The team of individuals and range of skill sets required to maintain a squadron at an elite level cannot be under estimated, nor fully appreciated. It is impressive to interact with a group of individuals who have adopted a way of life that is committed to a consistent cycle of deployment, renewal and deployment.
VFA-31 Tomcatters, “Fighting 31” is much more than a name or call sign, it is a living organism comprised of people, machine and mission that is constantly evolving, and renewing. Consistently performing with excellence, completing the mission tasked in support of the United States of America.
Special thanks to CDR Robert Bibeau, LCDR Alexander Wright, ADCS Christopher Moore, CWO3 Chree Emerson, AMI Michael Anderson, LTJG Nick Danforth and Mike Maus, Deputy Public Affairs Officer, CDR, Naval Air Force Atlantic
The following photos are from additional flight operations at NAS Oceana during the visit: