U.S. Naval Aviation: LEMOORIAN BIRDS

LEMOORIAN BIRDS

STRIKE FIGHTER WING PACIFIC

Report and photos by George Karavantos

June 26, 2022

NAS Lemoore is the US Navy’s newest and largest master jet base. It is the home base of the West Pacific Force. We visited NAS Lemoore to see some of its birds and we also followed some of them at NAS Fallon for their pre-deployment training.

Naval Air Station Lemoore is a United States Navy base, located in Kings County and Fresno County, California, United States. It is the newest and largest master jet base of the U.S. Navy. With the transfer of NAS Miramar to the United States Marine Corps, NAS Lemoore was selected to host the Navy’s entire west coast fighter/attack fleet.

NAS Lemoore was established in 1961 to support the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet. In July 1998, it was selected as the West Coast site for the Navy’s newest strike-fighter aircraft, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which received in November 1999 to replace the F-14 Tomcat in fleet service as an air-superiority fighter.

Currently, there are a total of 175 Super Hornets home-based at NAS Lemoore operating from one Fleet Replacement Squadron and seventeen Fleet Squadrons. In 2017, the F-35C Lightning II was received onboard NAS Lemoore, establishing the first F-35 Pacific training squadron. NAS Lemoore hosts five Carrier Air Wings: CVW-2, CVW-5, CVW-9, CVW-11 and CVW-17.

Strike Fighter Wing Pacific equipped with F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Squadrons

*Notes:

1) VFA-27, VFA-102, VFA-115 and VFA-195 are forward deployed at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan.

2) Each CVW assigned squadron has a standard unit establishment of 12 aircrafts.

SQUADRON NAME MODEL TAILCODE CARRIER AIR WING
VFA-2 Bounty Hunters F/A-18F NE CVW-2
VFA-14 Tophatters F/A-18E NG CVW-9
VFA-22 Fighting Redcocks F/A-18F NA CVW-17
VFA-25 The Fist of the Fleet F/A-18E AG CVW-11
VFA-27 Royal Maces F/A-18E NF CVW-5
VFA-41 Black Aces F/A-18F NG CVW-9
VFA-94 Mighty Shrikes F/A-18F NA CVW-17
VFA-102 Diamondbacks F/A-18F NF CVW-5
VFA-113 Stingers F/A-18E NE CVW-2
VFA-115 Eagles F/A-18E NF CVW-5
VFA-122 Flying Eagles F/A-18E&F NJ Fleet Replacement Sq
VFA-137 Kestrels F/A-18E NA CVW-17
VFA-146 Blue Diamonds F/A-18E NH CVW-11
VFA-151 Vigilantes F/A-18E NG CVW-9
VFA-154 Black Knights F/A-18F NH CVW-11
VFA-192 Golden Dragons F/A-18E NE CVW-2
VFA-195 Dambusters F/A-18E NF CVW-5

Apart from the Super Hornets squadrons, NAS Lemoore hosts the following F-35C squadrons:

  • Strike Fighter Squadron 97 (VFA-97) – Warhawks
  • Strike Fighter Squadron 125 (VFA-125) – Rough Raiders

(The “Rough Raiders” are a Fleet Replacement Squadron)

  • Strike Fighter Squadron 147 (VFA-147) – Argonauts

And a single Strike Fighter Weapons School Pacific (SFWSP) with T-43C Turbo Mentor

NAS Lemoore has a very interesting layout which you don’t see it often in military bases. It has two parallel runways 1,400 m apart. Aircraft parking and maintenance hangars are aligned between the 13,500-foot (4,100 m) runways. Separated from the hangars by underpasses beneath taxiways A and C, the remainder of the air operations area is located directly southeast.

VFA-2 “BOUNTY HUNTERS” – Callsign: Bullet

The Bounty Hunters can trace their roots back to the beginning of carrier aviation itself. From 1922 to 1927, it was the first squadron to be deployed aboard an aircraft carrier. The squadron’s early biplanes were painted with a red, white and blue stripe called a “Langley Stripe.” More than 80 years later, the Langley Stripe is still proudly displayed on the squadron’s F/A-18Fs.

After flying the F-14 Tomcat for 30 years, the Bounty Hunters began their transition to the two-seat Super Hornet Oct. 6, 2003, when the unit took delivery of its first F/A-18F, wearing the traditional Langley Stripe. The transition took only 4.5 months, the shortest time ever for a Tomcat to Super Hornet transition.

VFA-22 “FIGHTING REDCOCKS” – Callsign: Beef

The Fighting Redcocks of Strike Fighter Squadron 22 have been a mainstay of naval aviation for more than 60 years. Originally located at NAS Norfolk, Va., the first pilots flew Grumman F-8F Bearcats. Since that time, VFA-22 aircrew have flown nine different types of aircraft, culminating with a transition to the F/A-18F Super Hornet in 2007.

Throughout its history, Strike Fighter Squadron 22 has been the first unit to employ many new weapon systems to include the AGM-88 HARM in 1985, the AIM-120 AMRAAM in 1993 and the AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon in 1998 during Operation Desert Fox.

VFA-25 “THE FIST OF THE FLEET” – Callsign: Fist

The Fist of the Fleet began as Torpedo Squadron 17 in 1943, flying attack bombers during World War II. Following the war, the unit transitioned into propeller-driven A-1 Skyraiders, which it flew for the next 21 years. During the Korean hostilities, the unit flew 1,645 missions from the deck of USS Boxer.

In May 1983, pilots from VFA-25 began training in the first operational F/A-18A aircraft. The unit was redesignated a strike fighter unit July 1, 1983; it received 12 Hornets directly from the factory in St. Louis by March 1984. Following a successful combat deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2012, VFA-25 returned to NAS Lemoore to transition to the F/A-18E Super Hornet, completing the transition in late January 2013.

VFA-94 “THE MIGHTY SHRIKES” – Callsign: Hobo

VFA-94 was established as an F4U Fighter Squadron in 1952 at NAS Alameda, California. After quickly transitioning through seven aircraft, the Mighty Shrikes were redesignated as a light attack squadron in 1958 and then moved to NAS Lemoore in 1962, where they flew all models of the A-4 Skyhawk during the Vietnam conflict before converting to the A-7 Corsair II in 1971.

They completed seven consecutive combat deployments to Southeast Asia, aboard five different aircraft carriers, flying two different types of aircraft and supporting two different carrier air wings. In June 1990, the Mighty Shrikes received their first night strike F/A-18C Hornets and were redesignated a strike fighter squadron. The Mighty Shrikes began its transition from the F/A-18C Hornet to the F/A-18F Super Hornet in September 2015, completing the transition in March 2016.

VFA-97 “WARHAWKS” – Callsign: Warhawk

The Warhawks of VA-97 were established on June 1, 1967, at NAS Lemoore, and assigned to Carrier Air Wing 14. Since then until 1991, they flew A-7 Corsairs in 15 different deployments, aboard four different aircraft carriers. When they returned from their sixth deployment aboard USS Enterprise in April 1978, they celebrated the completion of six years and more than 30,000 hours of mishap-free flying in the A-7, making VA-97 the first squadron to achieve that mark.

In 1991, the Warhawks transitioned to F/A-18A Hornet aircraft, with their pilots and maintenance personnel training with Strike Fighter Squadron 25.

At the end of 2003, the Warhawks transitioned to the F/A-18C and prepared for their first of three deployments to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni for the Unit’s Deployment Program WESTPAC. In September 2019, it was announced the Warhawks would be one of the first squadrons to transition to the F-35C Lightning II which was received in October 2021.

VFA-113 “STINGERS” – Callsign: Sting

The Stingers “tested their courage” over the Korean skies, flying the F-8F Bearcat off USS Philippine Sea and the F4U Corsair off USS Valley Forge. As 1952 rolled around, the Stingers became a jet fighter squadron, flying the F-9F Panther and later the swept-wing F-9F Cougar. With the introduction of the A-4D Skyhawk, the Stingers were given a new role and redesignated Attack Squadron 113 in 1965. In December 1968, the Stingers transitioned to the A-7 aircraft and completed six combat cruises in Southeast Asia as part of Air Wing 2 aboard USS Ranger.

In 1983, the Stingers transitioned to the F/A-18 Hornet and were redesignated Strike Fighter Squadron 113. Between 1990 and 2003, they deployed with Carrier Air Wing 14 in support of operations Desert Shield, Southern Watch, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. On 17 February 2016, the final F/A-18C departed VFA-113’s flightline and was transferred to NAS OceanaVirginia. Since then, the squadron has transitioned to the F/A-18E Super Hornet. As the last Navy F/A-18C squadron on the west coast to transition to the Super Hornet, that last flight happened to be the last operational legacy Hornet flight ever for NAS Lemoore.

VFA-122 “FLYING EAGLES” – Callsign: Expert

The Flying Eagles is the Fleet Replacement Squadron for both E and F models of the Navy’s newest fighter aircraft — the F/A-18 Super Hornet. As such, it trains replacement aircrews and maintainers for combat operations in both the single- and two-seat Super Hornet. With a staff of 225 officers and 410 enlisted personnel, it operates more than 60 aircraft and is assigned directly to Strike Fighter Wing, Pacific.

VFA-137 “THE KESTRELS” – Callsign: Falcon

Strike Fighter Squadron 137 is the youngest organization at NAS Lemoore, established July 2, 1985. It received its first F/A-18A Hornet four months later, and went on its first deployment aboard USS Coral Sea in the fall of 1987.

The Kestrels, named after the North American falcon, participated in their first combat mission in 1990 aboard USS Forrestal, flying over Iraq in support of Operation Provide Comfort. In 1992, the squadron moved to its current location of NAS Lemoore.

VFA-137 subsequently proceeded to replace the older F/A-18A model with the night-attack-capable F/A-18C. In spring 2003, the Kestrels started the transition to the F/A-18E Super Hornet.

VFA-146 “BLUE DIAMONDS” – Callsign: Diamond

Established Feb. 1, 1956, at NAS Miramar, they originally flew the F9F-8 Cougar, but transitioned to FJ-4B Fury aircraft after only one deployment. In May 1962, they moved to NAS Lemoore and began flying the A-4C Skyhawk. The Blue Diamonds first saw combat as part of the USS Constellation air wing in the Gulf of Tonkin.

In 1968, the Blue Diamonds transitioned to new A-7B Corsair aircraft, but one year later they became the first unit in the fleet to receive A-7Es. In the spring of 1989, the unit was redesignated a strike fighter squadron and began flying the F/A-18C night strike fighter. In 2015, VFA-146 transitioned from the F/A-18C to the newer F/A-18E.

VFA-154 “BLACK KNIGHTS” – Callsign: Knight

The Black Knights came into existence in 1946 when a Naval Reserve squadron was called to active duty for the Korean War. Since that time, they have transitioned from propeller-driven aircraft to the Navy’s newest strike fighters; have served over Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East; and were forward deployed to Japan for 13 years.

After many changes in unit designation, the squadron was officially redesignated VF-154 on Feb. 4, 1953. In October 1983, the Black Knights transitioned to F-14 Tomcats, a type of aircraft they would continue to fly for the next two decades. Along with VF-21, they were the first F-14 squadrons to arrive in the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Desert Shield.

In September 2003, the Black Knights left Atsugi for the last time, ending a 13-year tour in Japan. They also ended a 20-year partnership with the F-14 Tomcat. One month later, the unit was redesignated Strike Fighter Squadron 154 and began transitioning to the Navy’s newest strike fighter, the F/A-18F, at NAS Lemoore.

VFA-192 “GOLDEN DRAGONS” – Callsign: Dragon

The Golden Dragons are five-time recipients of the Commander, Naval Air Force Pacific Fleet Battle Efficiency Award, two-time recipients of the Lt. Cmdr. Michael J. Estocin Award and most recently in 2008, recipients of the CNO’s Safety “S” for 25 years of Class A mishap-free  flying.

The unit was initially designated as Fighter Bomber Squadron 19 in 1945, flying the F4U Corsair. From 1959 to 1970, the Golden Dragons flew the venerable A-4 Skyhawk, making four combat cruises to Vietnam. In December 1962, the unit moved homeport from Moffett Field to NAS Lemoore, where they transitioned to the A-7E Corsair II and returned to Vietnam for two additional deployments.

On Jan. 10, 1986, the unit was redesignated Strike Fighter Squadron 192 and began transitioning to F/A-18A Hornets. Only 11 months later, in November 1986, the Golden Dragons were forward deployed to NAF Atsugi where they remained until December 2009. VFA-192 was one of the first Navy F/A-18 Hornet squadrons to launch strikes against enemy targets in Kuwait and Iraq during the Gulf War in 1991. During the same period, the Golden Dragons converted to F/A-18C. In March 2014, the Dragons prepared for their 10th major aircraft-type transition to the F/A-18E Super Hornet.

THE SUPER HORNET:

The Super Hornet was originally developed under the Hornet 2000 program and first flew in November 1995. The aircraft is significantly larger than its predecessor and carries 33% more fuel internally, which increases its endurance by 50% and mission range by 41%. Its carrier recovery payload is more than 9,000lb (4,082kg), which allows the fighter to bring back costly, unexpended weapons to the deck of the carrier.

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.

The Super Hornet is equipped with seven stations under the wing and centerline along with the wingtips, enabling it to carry the same types of weapons as the earlier Hornet variants. It retains the nose-mounted internal 20mm M61 rotary cannon. The Super Hornet is capable of carrying an A/A42R-5 air refuelling store and features five ‘wet’ stations that allow it to serve as a tanker aircraft. Boeing delivered 64 Block I F/A-18Es and 83 Block I F/A-18Fs before the switch to Block II took place. 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.

In addition to the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS), the Super Hornet is equipped with the Distributed Target System (DTS), which automatically transmits and receives targeting information to and from other platforms and ground receivers over the Link 16 network and the AN/ALQ-214 integrated defensive electronic countermeasures (IDECM) System. It can also carry the AN/ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infra-Red (ATFLIR) for strike, reconnaissance, and surveillance missions.

Boeing has delivered more than 570 Super Hornets and the inventory included 284 F/A-18E and 257 F/A-18F models in December 2017. A service life modernization (SLM) program that commenced in April 2018 will extend the Super Hornet’s service life from 6,000 to 9,000-plus hours, ensuring the fighter can remain in service through 2035. Although the navy’s program of record included 584 Super Hornets, the service now plans to continue procurement. In fact, the future year defense plan (FYDP) that runs from Fiscal 2019 to 2023 includes the purchase of 110 Block III Super Hornets and total procurement now totals 706 aircraft.

The Super Hornets will receive conformal fuel tanks (CFTs) that will replace the aircraft’s existing external tanks, extend its range by 100-120nm (185-224km) and enable it to carry additional payloads. The airframes will be delivered with a 9,000-hour service life. Block III will initially be introduced in new aircraft on the production line but will be followed by the Block II to III conversion. The service plans to upgrade around 450 Block II fighters beginning in 2023.

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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.
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