Navy Pilots Upbeat in Spite of Drones, Budget

VFA-106 Super Hornet 600x400

Popular culture has it that the glory days of fighter pilots and swirling dogfights have passed, that technology has rendered the man in the loop moot and that traditional aircraft will soon be replaced by drones in every mission area.

The instructors at VFA-106 don’t buy it.

"To think we're not going to show up . . . should a shooting war start is crazy," said Cdr. Brent "Stretch" Blackmer, VFA-106's commanding officer.

Blackmer, who previously ran the Navy's tactical aviation requirements office at the Pentagon, explained that winning future wars will demand human beings in cockpits because the net effect of technological advances can be confusion instead of clarity.

"There's going to be so much jamming, so much electronic attack, so many trons flying downrange," he said.  "Look at the advances the Chinese have made," Blackmer continued.  "Look at the technology that's being sold by the Russians. 

"We're going to be way closer than anybody expected.  We all thought it was going to be long range -- Phoenix missiles coming off Tomcats wicked far out.  But somebody's going to be [light]on radar missiles and somebody's not going to be on timeline and going to go to the merge with a heat seeker because they can't use that 'over the shoulder' Naval Integrated Fire Control Counter Air-type shot.  

"So to give us an airplane without a gun or send guys to the fleet without Basic Fighter maneuvering training to get peeled off from the herd in some of the countries we're going to go into would be a huge mistake."

The CO explained that the Virginia Beach-based VFA-106 is actually the largest squadron within the Department of Defense, with a complement of 124 F/A-18s of all models.  Freshly-winged Naval Aviators go through a 45-week syllabus that involves 5 different phases: Familiarization, formation flying, strike (bomb dropping), fighter (dogfighting and air-to-air missile employment), and carrier qualification.

Those who successfully complete the process are sent to fleet Hornet and Super Hornet squadrons home-based at NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach, NAS Lemoore in California, or NAS Atsugi in Japan.  Those squadron are assigned to air wings attached to aircraft carriers that deploy around the world.

Within the syllabus two phases shape the way pilots will fight the jet in combat -- strike and fighter.  And the sortie makeup of the fighter phase indicates that planners believe dogfights will occur in the future.

Lt. Andrew "Cobalt" Thom, who's assigned to VFA-106's operations office, explained that the fighter phase starts with ten "basic fighter maneuver" flights a "2 v 1" at the end.  The flight progression is intended to first get pilots comfortable with the jet and then to show them how to get the most performance out of it.

BFM is basically "how to do a slow speed loop.  How to do a pirouette.  How the jet works.  How it feels," Thom said.  "Then you go off and start fighting other aircraft."

From that point the fighter phase flights are broken into offensive starts and defensive starts -- scenarios where pilots are either winning or losing the dogfight.  The final phase sorties involve "high aspect" -- nose-to-nose situations where winning or losing is a function of a pilot's skill over technology -- "the art instead of the science," as Thom put it.

Lt. Justin "Flounder" Nixon, who is one of the weapons systems officers -- the backseaters -- leading the Fighter Phase, said the breakdown of sorties in the phase tells the tale.  "We fly 11 [within visual range] sorties; we fly 14 [beyond visual range] sorties.  You would think based on the tactics and the hardware and the systems that that number would be a handful of dogfighting flights with a whole lot of long range flights, but it's only a couple off."

The Navy's previous generation fighter -- the legendary F-14 Tomcat -- had performance characteristics that made it hard to manage and even dangerous in certain dynamic regimes, most notably those that led to irrecoverable 'flat' spins as documented in the Hollywood classic "Top Gun."  But the Hornet and Super Hornet don't suffer from the same issue.

The F-18 is "hard to spin and hard to depart," said Lt. Ian "Slick" Kemp, a pilot assigned as one of the Fighter Phase Heads.

Cdr. Blackmer added that those who designed the Hornet took out the things that previously got pilots in trouble or led to jets crashing but kept the performance attributes that make the jet lethal in the dogfighting arena.  "Engineers designed the Hornet so [pilots] don't need to violate [the flight manual] to aggressively fight the airplane."

And while the Navy has made a lot out of developments around the X-47, the carrier-based drone platform that successfully operated on and off an aircraft carrier a few months ago, the instructors at VFA-106 aren't worried that they're going to be replaced by robots.

"We're always going to need people in the cockpit," Blackmer said.  "Someone at Creech Air Force Base in a trailer might not have more than a soda straw view."  He added that drones could take the highest risk missions or the pedestrian mission like airborne tanking.  He was also intrigued by the idea of a Hornet pilot controlling a couple of drones on his or her wing.  "Let me control two of those guys," he said.

"I'm not worried about a drone taking my job," Kemp added.  "They will take missions, but not my mission."

But missions need money, and the current Pentagon budgetary environment in the face of sequestration has been dire.  Cdr. Blackmer claimed that VFA-106 has been somewhat untouched by a lack of funds so far.  

"We fly 22,000 flight hours a year," the skipper said.  "We have to produce 85 [first tour] pilots per annum and also 200 [veteran pilots returning to the fleet after time out of the cockpit].  Sequestration hasn't taken from our flight hour programs just yet."

Blackmer said budget cuts have affected long-term aircraft maintenance that has resulted in fewer working jets.  On any given day he only has 70 of his 120-plus jets to use these days.

"We hear stories of [air wings] coming off of cruise and not flying for a month," Blackmer said.  "We hear stories of other squadrons only getting 11.5 flight hours [per pilot] a month."

The commanding officer warned that the net effect can be catastrophic as well as a waste of money.  

"When you push the safety envelope and you start shelling out of a $79 million dollar jet that adds up real quickly," Blackmer said.

Among the effects of budget cuts are longer deployments because there are fewer aircraft carriers to cover global commitments.  The standard cruise that used to be six months long is now nine months long.  But the pilots at VFA-106, who will eventually return to fleet assignments, seemed to take it in stride.

"Nine months is the new reality," Lt. Nixon said.

If you feel like you're being taken care of, we'd work 22-hour days," added Lt. Christopher "BJ" Keen, who's assigned as the squadron's Strike Phase Head.  "We'd do anything if you feel like you're being taken care of."

But the VFA-106 instructors aren't worried that the big picture out of the Pentagon is wrecking the outlook of the junior officers they’re training.

"JOs showing up [here] are trying to figure out this place," Lt. Kemp said.  "Most of them aren't worried about that [Pentagon problem] stuff."

"If I was a JO coming in now I'd be super stoked," added Lt. Thom.  "They're going to fly Super Hornets."

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