Navy Deactivates F-35 Training Squadron as it Concentrates Stealth Fighter Ops

Three F-35C Lightning IIs complete a flight overhead Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Feb. 1, 2019. (U.S. Navy/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon E. Renfroe)
Three F-35C Lightning IIs complete a flight overhead Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Feb. 1, 2019. (U.S. Navy/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon E. Renfroe)

The U.S. Navy has deactivated its stealth fighter squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

The service announced last week that F-35C Joint Strike Fighters belonging to the "Grim Reapers" of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 101 had left Eglin, which had served as a Lightning II training hub since 2012, according to a news release.

The Navy in December said plans were in the works to move its F-35C operations to Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, concentrating its Joint Strike Fighter operations out west.

"The contributions that VFA-101 has made to the F-35C community will not diminish as this program grows," said Cmdr. Adan Covarrubias, head of VFA-101. "The original cadre of maintainers and pilots have left a legacy that is evidenced in all aspects of this community. Their influence will continue long after the squadron's doors are closed."

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The Grim Reapers have trained "more than 75 Navy and Marine Corps F-35C pilots, accepted more than 30 aircraft, trained more than 1,200 F-35C maintainers and flown nearly 11,000 flight hours," according to the release.

The squadron traces its roots back to World War II. Originally known as VF-10 and stationed at NAS San Diego, it flew F4F Wildcats off the aircraft carrier Enterprise (CV-6) in the Pacific during WWII; it was deactivated in 1945. The squadron was resurrected in 1952 as VFA-101 before being deactivated again. VFA-101 was brought back once again at Eglin on the unit's 60th anniversary in 2012.

Lemoore is already home to Strike Fighter Squadron 147, as well as Strike Fighter Squadron 125, a replacement squadron. The units train carrier-based F-35 pilots. VFA-147's first deployment is scheduled aboard the carrier Carl Vinson in 2021.

Some of VFA-101's F-35C pilots will transfer to VFA-125, VFA-147 and the Joint Strike Fighter Wing at Lemoore; others will go to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 9 (VX-9) at Edwards Air Force Base, California, officials said.

More than 50 percent of maintainers from the Grim Reapers will also remain in the F-35C community at either Lemoore or Edwards, officials said.

"Several facilities [at Lemoore] were built or remodeled to facilitate specific F-35C requirements with regard to maintenance and training, including a Pilot Fit Facility, Centralized Engine Repair Facility, Pilot Training Center, and a newly remodeled hangar, the release states. "Future projects are planned as additional Navy squadrons transition into the F-35C. Marine Corps F-35C squadrons will be based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar" in California.

Joint operations between the Navy and the other services at Eglin will be maintained, officials said. VFA-101's deactivation will not alter "the U.S. Navy Enlisted Maintenance training that is conducted at the Academic Training Center (ATC) ... [nor] the Navy's support of Test & Evaluation joint development with the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Marine Corps and the partners at Eglin Air Force Base," according to the release.

The Navy is gearing up for its first F-35C carrier deployment; however, only two percent of F-35Cs were able to achieve full mission capability between May and November 2018, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office.

Nevertheless, top Navy officials in February signed off on the aircraft's initial operating capability status, declaring it combat ready.

The Marine Corps has deployed its B variant to the Pacific and the Middle East on Navy ships.

An F-35B detachment assigned to the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which operated from aboard the amphibious assault ship Essex, returned home in February. It was the first time the Marine Corps' variant of the stealth jet, which can take off and land vertically, had deployed to the Middle East.

The amphibious assault ship Wasp is currently in the Pacific with at least 10 F-35Bs on board.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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