Today I had my first flight as a “Green Knight” of VMFA(AW)-121. For those of you who don’t know, each letter in that acronym “VMFA(AW)” indicates something specific about the squadron: the “V” denotes its a fixed-wing squadron (as opposed to rotary-wing); the “M” identifies it as a Marine Corps squadron; the “F” and “A” are for our primary missions, fighter and attack; the “(AW)” indicates we are organized for all-weather operations; and 121 is our numerical designator. After three and and half years of training, I have finally joined an operational–“fleet”–unit.
I finished at the training squadron, VMFAT-101 (“T” indicates it’s a training squadron)’ on Tuesday, September 4. The last three weeks with them were a flurry of air-to-air flights, often twice a day. The pace was hard–so many flights packed together meant a great deal of studying too–but the flights were fun and fast-paced with plenty of air combat. My final flight was an combination air-to-ground and air-to-air tactics sortie as I led a division of four aircraft on a self-escort strike. We fought our way into the target area, bombed a target, and fought our way back out. It was a complicated and intense flight, and after I finished the training squadron kicked me unceremoniously out the door.
Looking back, I am amazed at how much I’ve learned. Generally, I have little patience with technical applications–I prefer to focus on “big picture” stuff, like theories and tactics. Yet my profession is dauntingly technical, requiring operation of a complicated machine designed to accomplish many different missions. In order to juggle everything effectively, pilots and WSOs must develop a sort of “muscle memory” about their equipment: we have to be able to operate on instinct in order to focus meager brain power on the layout of enemy fighters, air defenses, and the thousand little surprises that come up in such a dynamic environment. No plan, after all, survives first contact with the enemy…or even Air Traffic Control. It requires a lot of rote memorization and repetitious practice to make the most out of training flights.
Yet even with all my training, I am only technically 60% combat ready right now. The aircraft of my new squadron have more capable equipment than those of the training squadron. This stuff blows my mind, and I am making a concerted effort to learn about it: encrypted radios, sophisticated sensors, new modes of operating our radar, The tactics of real combat go far beyond the introduction I received in the training squadron. So it is true what they say: as an aviator you never stop learning. If I ever become really proficient in the systems I am operating now, there will be new ones to learn being installed on our fleet aircraft. In short, I have not “arrived”–I still have a lot to learn and a lot to prove.
The increasingly technical dynamic of my job makes it hard to write about, which is why I have slowed my posts related to the military. Back in TBS, every week we were introduced to new skills and theories. In the early part of flight school, every month or so I was introduced to a new type of flight. At this point, however, I’m past the theories and broad overview knowledge and required to specialize in my own airplane and our unique tactics–the details of which are probably pretty boring to the outside world.
Yet I could not have found a better place to take this next step. VMFA(AW)-121, or the “Green Knights,” is one of the most storied squadrons in the Marine Corps. It was formed as VMF-121 here at Miramar in 1941, along with the 2nd Marine Division, and was among the leading elements to hit Guadalcanal in 1942. The maintenance Marines of the squadron assaulted the beaches of Guadalcanal as infantry, fought through the jungle to capture the partially finished Japanese airfield there, and begin directing flight operations to bring in Green Knight aircraft. Stories tell how the fighting was so close to the runway that Green Knights would take off and drop ordnance without even retracting the landing gear, and circle back to the field to reload. VMF-121 would later fight from the legendary forward air bases of Espirito Santo Island, Turtle Bay, Bougainville, and Emirau. During WWII, the Squadron produced 14 Fighter Aces while downing 209 Japanese aircraft in aerial combat–scoring higher in both categories than any other squadron.
The Squadron dropped more bomb tonnage during the Korean War than any other Navy or Marine Corps squadron, devastating enemy airfields, supply dumps, bridges, and railroad yards. In November of 1962, the “Green Knights” deployed to NAS Cecil Field on the coast of Florida in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the Vietnam War, the Squadron helped pioneer new night-attack and targeting systems. On December 8, 1989 the Squadron acquired the F/A-18D Hornet (my own aircraft), and was redesignated as VMFA(AW)-121– the first Marine Corps F/A-18D Night Attack Hornet Squadron. Slightly over one year later, the Squadron deployed in support of Operation Desert Shield/Storm and earned the nom du guerre “Heavy Haulers” for dropping more ordnance in support of ground forces than any other squadron. More recently, the Green Knights flew combat missions over Afghanistan and Iraq–in fact, I checked in immediately after the squadron returned from their latest deployment to the Middle East.
The Green Knights are proud and demanding. As a new WSO, I am expected to read and learn various tactical manuals in preparation for my “combat wingman” qualification, and they have set high standards for me and the other new check-ins. Long days of study are the norm, and I usually fly back-to-back flights. The veterans are strict with everything from how we brief to how we talk on the radio. But I sense behind the work a strong commitment to maintain our tradition of excellence and battlefield success. Wish me luck!