Carrier Qualifications aboard CVN-72

Carrier Qualifications aboard CVN-72

Transitioning to the new era of the US Navy

Aviation Photography Digest and George Karavantos embarked USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) during FRS aircraft qualifications and brings you an update of the US Navy’s transition to the modern era.

Report and photos by George Karavantos

March 29, 2024

The Navy’s future carrier air wing will include a mix of both fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft, with the Super Hornets and the F-35Cs making up the strike fighter fleet. During the last two years there have been two deployments with the new fifth-generation stealth fighter. The first F-35C deployment took place in 2021 aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) with a squadron of 10 aircraft of the Strike Fighter Squadron 147 (VFA-147) ‘Argonauts’. The second took place with the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), the carrier that we visited, from January till August 2022. This time there were 14 planes (the number currently planned for F-35C squadrons) from the first USMC unit to transition to the F-35C, the VMFA-314 ‘Black Knights, based at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar in California. USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) will be the third aircraft carrier that will be able to support operations of the F-35C.

As Lockheed Martin continues to build more airframes, there is potential to go up to 20 F-35s in total deployed on a single carrier. If this will become a reality, the Navy would have to decide whether that’s going to be a single squadron or two squadrons.

Along with the F-35, the new other aircraft type for the US Navy is the Bell Boeing CMV-22B Osprey which was also deployed both on Vinson’s and Lincoln’s decks during their recent deployments. The assigned Squadron was Fleet Logistics Multi-Mission Squadron 30 (VRM-30) ‘Titans’.

US Navy is also a few years away from introducing the first unmanned aircraft into the air wing blending fourth and fifth-generation aircraft into the future carrier air wing and the transition to future sixth-generation systems.

These are the new “game changers” of the US Navy which, along with the upgraded Super Hornets, will bring the Navy into the new era. The new structure that US Navy is planning for its future air wings will comprise of:

– 4 Strike Fighter Squadrons (VFAs)

From modernizing the fourth-generation F/A-18E and F Super Hornets, to the ongoing integration of the F-35Cs into the carrier air wing, the new plan of the US Navy is to maintain one VFA with around 14 F-35Cs and three VFAs, each equipped with ten Block III Super Hornets (two with F/A-18Es and one with F/A-18Fs). The number of strike fighters embarked with each CVW will still be 44.

– 1 Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ)

At present, eight of the VAQ units (130, 133, 136, 137, 139, 140, 141 and 142) are assigned to a CVW. Five others (131, 132, 134, 135 and 138) are land-based expeditionary squadrons that deploy on operations in support of joint and coalition forces especially the Marines since they retired their Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler electronic attack aircraft fleet in March 2019.

In total, Boeing has produced 160 EA-18Gs for the US Navy. The VAQ squadrons have now five examples each, however fleet experimentation has shown that the ideal complement of EA-18Gs per unit is seven aircraft. Vinson’s and Lincoln’s recent deployments included seven Growlers. Whether that becomes the adopted standard among VAQ squadrons has not yet been determined.

– 1 Airborne Command & Control Squadron (VAW),

Each CVW is equipped with one VAW. Each VAW squadron is equipped with either the older E-2C Hawkeye 2000 or the more modern E-2D Advanced Hawkeye. On January 21, 2022, Northrop Grumman had delivered the 51st Advanced Hawkeye production aircraft. The service has plans to procure 86 examples of the E-2D in total.

– 1 Helicopter Sea Combat Squadrons (HSCs) / Maritime Strike Squadrons (HSM):

Both MH-60S Knighthawk and MH-60R Seahawk were introduced in early /mid 2000s and replaced all the Navy’s other helicopter types and reorganized all the helicopter fleet dividing it into two squadrons.

– 1 Fleet Logistics Support Squadron (VRC) / One Fleet Logistics Multi-Mission Squadron (VRM) detachment:

The US Navy’s well-matured Greyhound aircraft are now being replaced in operational service by the CVM-22B Osprey. The CMV-22B differs from the USMC’s MV-22B tilt-rotors as it can carry more fuel to accommodate its longer-range mission set.

– 1 Unmanned Carrier-Launched Multi-Role Squadron (VUQ), which will join CVWs later this decade.

The next aircraft type to join the Navy’s CVWs later this decade is the Boeing MQ-25A Stingray. An unmanned jet tasked with the mission of aerial refueling. It will also be able to perform a secondary intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) mission set. The Stingray is scheduled to enter operational fleet service in 2025 and will equip the navy’s newly established VUQs.

While increasing the number of F-35Cs and EA-18G Growlers in the air wing is a possibility, there are other numerous factors to consider – including the carrier’s “deck density”. The planned introduction of the MQ-25A Stingray unmanned tanker into the air wing with most probably 5 examples on each aircraft carrier might become a challenge.

Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS):

A Fleet Replacement Squadron is a unit of the United States Navy and Marine Corps that trains Naval Aviators, Naval Flight Officers (NFOs) and enlisted naval air crewmen on the specific front-line aircraft they have been assigned to fly. Students, referred to as Replacement Pilots or Replacement Weapon Systems Officers are either newly winged aviators (Category I), aviators transitioning from one type aircraft to another (Category II), or aviators returning to the cockpit after a period of non-flying (Category III). After completing the training regimen, graduates are assigned to fleet squadrons. Additionally, FRSs are responsible for training aircraft mechanics, providing replacement aircraft for fleet squadron attrition, and standardizing maintenance and aircraft operations.

The VFA-106 ‘Gladiators’ at NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and VFA-122 ‘Flying Eagles’ at NAS Lemoore, California, serve as the fleet replacement squadrons (FRS) for the F/A-18E/F.

VFA-125 ‘Rough Raiders’, which was reactivated at NAS Lemoore in January 2017, serves as the FRS for both the Navy and Marine Corps F-35C fleets. On July 1, 2019, this unit absorbed VFA-101 ‘Grim Reapers’, the Navy’s initial F-35C FRS, which was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

VAQ-129 “Vikings” serves as the FRS for the US Navy’s Growler fleet. It is the only EA-18G Growler training squadron and it is based at NAS Whidbey Island, which is home to all of the service’s VAQ units.

Towards a new era:

The new structure of the US Navy will boost its abilities well into mid-century. The fifth-generation force along with upgraded fourth generation will be the tip of the spear for the next 20 years. Additionally, the introduction of the MQ-25A will help make the CVWs more self-sufficient, freeing the rest of the fighters for more combat use.

On March 1922, the US Navy made history when it re-commissioned the USS Jupiter as the Us Navy’s first aircraft carrier USS Langley (CV-1). Today, two classes of nuclear –powered aircraft carriers (Nimitz and Ford classes) lead the fleet as they deter aggression and assure national and global security over the seas. The modernization efforts now being made to the Navy’s CVN and CVW fleets will undoubtedly strengthen the Navy’s ability for more combat and formidable airpower which can be applied even at the furthest places of the world, if needed.

Super Hornet “Still going strong”:

The Super Hornet was originally developed under the Hornet 2000 program and first flew in November 1995. Delivery of single-seat F/A-18Es and two-seat F/A-18Fs to fleet replacement squadron (FRS) VFA-122 at NAS Lemoore, California, began in September 1999 and initial operational capability was achieved in 2001. The Super Hornet’s first deployment began in July 2002 and it entered combat with VFA-115, which conducted strikes in Afghanistan in support of Operation ‘Enduring Freedom’ in November 2002. A VFA-87 Super Hornet scored the fighter’s first aerial kill against a Syrian Air Force Su-22 on June 18, 2017.

Boeing built and delivered 59 F/A-18Es and 78 F/A-18Fs to the US Navy in the initial Block I standard, before handing over 463 Block II-configured Super Hornets (comprising 259 F/A-18Es and 204 F/A-18Fs) to the service. The Block I versions used the AN/APG-73 radar but the Block II’s redesigned nose section accommodated the AN/APG-79 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and an advanced crew station. The AESA radar was installed from the 136th Block II variant and was retrofitted to earlier aircraft.

Two of the Block II F/A-18Fs were subsequently converted into NEA-18G development aircraft. In June 2020, Boeing delivered the first two prototypes of the Block III-configured Super Hornet (comprising an E- and F-model) to the US Navy for testing purposes. The F/A-18F (169751) was the 287th Super Hornet to be built, while the F/A-18E (169748) was the 323rd example of the type.

The first Block III Super Hornet completed its maiden flight on May 14, 2020. The Block III configuration features the Advanced Cockpit System, which replaces the current set of cockpit displays with a single, large touch screen for an improved user interface and incorporation of the Common Tactical Picture.

The US Navy has ordered 78 new build Block III F/A-18E/Fs, the first two of which were delivered by Boeing in September 2021. The company is also performing service-life upgrades to the Block II examples to increase their operation to 10,000 flight hours. These will eventually be upgraded to Block III standards. The program of record for Super Hornet acquisition calls for the US Navy to operate 678 aircraft, including 379 F/A-18Es and 299 F/A-18Fs. While the 78 new-build Block III examples are supposed to be the final Super Hornets produced for the navy, the US Congress may consider adding 24 more to that order for the next Fiscal year budget.

Boeing is currently developing a Block II upgrade for the EA-18G fleet, which will feature improved sensors, upgraded electronic attack systems and the same Advanced Cockpit System employed by the Block III Super Hornets.

Lightning II “The new kid on the block”:

Even 15 years after, the aircraft is still in low rate initial production (LRIP). Also, the Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) phase of the project has yet to be completed. Nevertheless, the F-35C is now operational and the navy’s first Lightning II squadron, VFA-147. The ‘Argonauts’ reached initial operational capability (IOC) with the F-35C on February 28, 2019. The second naval squadron to complete the transition to the F-35C is VFA-97 ‘Warhawks’, based at NAS Lemoore. A former F/A-18E unit, the ‘Warhawks’ began this process in April 2020.

In total, the US Navy plans to procure 273 F-35Cs. The first USMC unit to transition to the F-35C was VMFA-314 ‘Black Knights, based at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar in California. It achieved IOC in December 2020 and conducted its first operational deployment with CVW-9 aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2022. Ultimately, the USMC plans to field a total of four F-35C squadrons and have already committed two of them to the Tactical Air Integration (TAI) program.

The Marine Corps plans to procure 67 F-35Cs in total, which will supplement the service’s growing F-35B fleet. As originally envisaged, the USMC would supply ten VMFA squadrons to the US Navy, which would then embed one of the Marine units within each CVW. That ambitious goal was derailed by the heavy commitments of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq. Now, it is unlikely that this commitment will extend beyond the two F-35C-equipped VMFAs.


The CMV-22B Osprey is a variant of the MV-22B and is the replacement for the C-2A Greyhound that first entered service in the mid-1960s for the Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) mission. In December 2018, the Navy held a ceremony to mark the activation of the first operational CMV-22B unit, Fleet Logistics Multi-Mission Squadron 30 (VRM-30), at Naval Air Station North Island in California. The CMV-22B’s first aircraft carrier landing took place in 2020 aboard the flight deck of the Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson underway in the Pacific Ocean.

Compared to the MV-22B, the Navy variant has extended operational range, a beyond line-of-sight HF radio, improved fuel dump capability, a public address system for passengers, and an improved lighting system for cargo loading. The CMV-22B is capable of transporting up to 6,000 pounds of cargo / personnel to a 1,150 NM range. Unlike the Greyhound, the CMV-22B is capable of transferring a Pratt & Whitney F135 afterburning turbofan engine core for the F-35C from the shore to a deployed aircraft carrier.

We had the time to discuss with the Executive Officer, Capt Patrick Baker about Osprey’s first deployment with CVN-72 and the pros and cons of this new aircraft for the US Navy.

“With distributed maritime ops, longer ranges, distances between multi-carrier operations, distances from land-based areas, it proved to be a game-changer for us on deployment. There are several advantages of the CMV-22B over both the Greyhound and the Marine Corps’ MV-22 tilt-rotor variant:

– Its increased fuel capacity gives it a far greater operating range than the MV-22. It even has a slightly greater range than the Greyhound.

– Also not having to launch the aircraft of a catapult is very important on medevac missions, because medical personnel don’t have to worry about how the tremendous launching force would affect patients. The Osprey offers the flexibility in terms of being able to quickly land, load and unload and take off again from a carrier. It has the ability to get it on and off the deck in a rather rapid fashion”, Baker said.

George Karavantos on FacebookGeorge Karavantos on Instagram
George Karavantos
Photojournalist at Aviation Photography Digest
George Karavantos is from Athens, Greece. His love with military aviation started at the age of 10 when he accidentally read a Greek aviation magazine. Since then, he never stopped reading about fighter aircraft and taking photos of them. He was too tall to become a fighter pilot, so he became an airline pilot. Nowadays he is a Captain and a Flight Instructor on the A320 aircraft. Despite his profession, military aviation will always be his obsession.
Send this to a friend
All rights reserved © Aviation Photography Digest, 2024
Subscribe to our FREE newsletter and get notified when new articles are published.
  • Original material featuring air forces from around the world
  • High quality photographs tell the visual story
  • Unique insight into military aviation
  • Featured videos
  • New content published regularly