U.S. Naval Air Force Reserve: A Century of Service

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C-118s from Transport Squadron (VR) 772 made several supply runs from home base at Los Alamitos, Calif., to Chu Lai, South Vietnam in 1966. (Photo courtesy of Robert Lawson)

Part II

By Cmdr. Peter B. Mersky, USNR (Ret.)

Author’s Note: Since the Navy and the Marine Corps have always been linked, it should come as no surprise that the two services’ reserve air corps were founded at the same time. However, this commemorative two-part article focuses on the Naval Air Reserve established in 1916, later renamed the Naval Air Force Reserve.

The Vietnam Era

As memories of World War II and the Korean War began fading, the nation’s military reserves went their ways, settling into the peacetime they had fought so hard to establish. But the road was not smooth, and by the mid-1960s, another conflict in Asia would involve a reluctant America. After the heart-wrenching assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, there was a time of uncertainty regarding America’s resolve in foreign affairs. The Soviet Union and China were seeking to extend their communist dominion over the Third World, with troubling success. By the early 1960s, Southeast Asia had become a hotbed of bloody conflict. Vietnam had been divided at the 17th parallel, with the North sending men and supplies south to depose the rulers in the South. President Eisenhower sent American advisors to help the South, a limited role Kennedy initially maintained but was considering scaling back when he was killed.

His vice president and successor, Lyndon Johnson, found himself sending more U.S. troops and other units after a clouded sequence of attacks on U.S. ships in August 1964. Among the most busy Naval Air Reserve (NAR) squadrons were the transport units using R5Ds (C-54s/DC-4s) and R6Ds (C-118s/DC-6s) to move men and supplies—often totaling 15,000 pounds per plane—into South Vietnam.

NAR manpower came from individuals rather than whole squadrons. The number of pilots and crews required to man aircraft and ships and to run shore-based facilities rose rapidly, and the services’ various pre-commissioning and flight-training programs shifted their production into high gear, with most of the graduates gaining Reserve commissions.

Thousands of young Americans were commissioned during the Vietnam War, through the Navy’s Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS), established May 1955 in Pensacola, Florida, a primary source of new Reserve officers.

By the time AOCS was disestablished in 2007, it had graduated 55,000 Naval Reserve ensigns, the majority of whom went into aviation activities from pilot, NFO, air intelligence and other related billets.

USS Pueblo Brings Major Reorganization

Cruising off the North Korean coast, environmental research ship USS Pueblo (AGER 2) was captured and boarded by North Korean sailors Jan. 23, 1968, a seizure that set off a chain of events affecting the Reserves. Besides sending a fleet carrier task force up from the South China Sea into the Sea of Japan, extending an already lengthy deployment, President Johnson also recalled six NAR carrier A-4 and F-8 squadrons—72 aircraft and 593 selected reservists (SELRES)—to augment the squadrons already aboard the task force carriers.

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Cmdr. Milton E. Johnson, Commanding Officer of Attack Squadron (VA) 776, taxying in after landing on January 30, 1968-five days after a recall order was issued during the Pueblo Crisis. (Photo by JOSN J.W. Fletcher)

For several years, reservists—now referred to as Reserve Component (RC) Sailors—had flown obsolescent aircraft and had to share the limited number with Marine Corps Air Reserve squadrons on the same field. Upgrading to fleet-comparable models was slowing down squadrons as they readied themselves for integration into the fleet during a national crisis. The F-8 squadrons struggled at Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville, Florida, as they tried to move to newer variants of the Crusader. By September, the diminished international situation and the problems with preparing the Reserve squadrons resulted in their release from active duty. It was a tough, embarrassing lesson for everyone concerned, and major changes to the overall NAR began.

The plan was to create a mirror image of the fleet. On April 1, 1970, two Reserve carrier air wings (CVWRs) were commissioned, CVWR-20 and CVWR-30, which would respectively deploy to the Atlantic Fleet and Pacific Fleet. Two short-lived wings were also commissioned for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) use, CVSGR-70 and CVSGR-80. Twelve maritime patrol (VP) and three transport (VR) squadrons were also part of the reorganization. It was an ambitious plan that included equipping the new squadrons with aircraft types that were also in the fleet.

The restructuring was hailed as a major milestone, and it certainly made the NAR a more modern and deployable force. It took advantage of many aircrews who, although they were leaving active duty following combat tours in Vietnam, did not want to hang up their uniforms and put their gold wings in a jewelry box.

Another advantage of the Reserve air wing was the entire wing would do its annual two-week active duty as a unit. Accordingly, squadrons of CVWR-30 went out to carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA 42) in late 1970 for carrier qualifications (CQs). Operations went smoothly, particularly because many squadron members had recently returned from Vietnam with considerable operational and combat experience in their aircraft. After CQs, the wings deployed to several sites such as the weapons training range at NAS Fallon, Nevada.

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In 1970, one of Fighter Squadron (VF) 301’s F-8Js is readied for launch from USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV 42) while a Light Photographic Squadron (VFP) 306 RF-8G is waved off overhead. (Photo courtesy of Peter B. Mersky)

 

By the mid-1970s, Reserve air wing squadrons had received even more modern aircraft such as the F-4 Phantom II and A-7 Corsair II. An earlier attempt to include the F-4 in the Reserves at then-NAS Los Alamitos, California, in 1970 did not work out, and it was not until 1974 that the first F-4Bs joined Fighter Squadron (VF) 301 and VF-302 at NAS Miramar, California. The Marine Corps Air Reserve had also accepted its first F-4Bs, giving up its F-8s. Attack squadrons based in California at NAS Point Mugu, Lemoore and Alameda exchanged their A-4s for A-7s and, briefly, A-6s.

With new aircraft sporting colorful markings that recalled the 1930s, the NAR had finally begun to achieve a measure of parity with the fleet.

The apparent success was such that for a week in November 1976, CVWR-30 operated aboard USS Ranger (CV 61) as the ship’s dedicated air wing. The success of this mini-deployment encouraged NAR wings to participate in various exercises and travel far from their home bases.

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A VF-301 F-4N Phantom grabs an arresting wire, making a trap aboard USS Ranger (CV 61) in November 1976 during the TACAIR Test. The landing signal officers watch the trap closely. (Photo by Peter B. Mersky)

The remainder of the NAR—the maritime patrol (VP), helicopter (HS) and transport (VR) wings—also received updated equipment. The VPs had flown the veteran Lockheed P-2 Neptune but by November 1970 were transitioning to the much more advanced P-3 Orion. The HS squadrons were moving to the H-3 Sea King and H-2 Seasprite, while two unique helicopter attack units flying HH-1K Hueys were commissioned. Having enjoyed considerable success over a five-year period in South Vietnam, a lone helicopter attack squadron (light), HAL-3, would also develop into two HALS—HAL-4 at NAS Norfolk, Virginia, and HAL-5 at NAS Pt. Mugu, California. These two squadrons would be redesignated HCS-4 and HCS-5 and fly the Sikorsky HH-60H SAR-dedicated helicopter during Desert Storm in 1991 and remain an important search-and-rescue (SAR) asset into the 21st century. A single dedicated SAR squadron, HC-9, also appeared for a time equipped with the HH-3A, then the SH-3.

An important change occurred Jan. 1, 1973, when the surface—ships, submarines and shore-based activities—and aviation Reserves were brought together under one roof in a new, built-for-purpose complex in New Orleans, Louisiana. Previously, the surface Reserve had been administered by a two-star admiral based in Omaha, Nebraska, with the aviation side headquartered at NAS Glenview, near Chicago, central locations that supposedly made it easier for the admirals to visit either side of the country. Under the reorganization, the overall commanding officer of the reserves was titled Commander, Naval Reserve Force, to whom the Commander, Naval Air Reserve Force, established Oct. 1, 1983, reported while leading the air reserves. The change was to improve command and control of the Reserves and enhance readiness. Another change in titles occurred again in the early 2000s when the Naval Air Reserve became the NAFR.

The 1980s and 1990s: Reassessment and Rebirth

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An A-7B of VA-303 taxis from the squadron line at Fallon during a CVWR-30 “cruise” at the Nevada air station. (Photo by Peter B. Mersky)

A shattering event in November 1979—the seizure of more than 50 American citizens by radical elements in strife-torn Iran, once a staunch U.S. ally—brought Americans together once again after years of internal division over the Vietnam War. With a change of administration and shifting political climate marked by the release of the remaining 51 hostages the same day President Reagan took office in January 1981, the U.S. began rebuilding its military capability.

The main force behind the rebuilding of the NAR—and in fact, the entire Navy—was Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman. Appointed at 38, Lehman became one of the youngest people to hold the post. As a drilling Naval Air Reservist and A-6 bombardier/navigator, Lehman was well-versed in Navy traditions and operational requirements, and committed to bringing about a 600-ship Navy and better equipped NAR. A strong personality unused to failure, Lehman had his work cut out for him.

Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn, a combat-experienced A-4 squadron commander during Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-1968), served as Commander, Naval Reserve Force from October 1982 to December 1983. He recalled his memories of Lehman’s attempts to modernize the NAR in his oral history conducted by the U.S. Naval Institute:

“Traditionally, the reserve air components would get hand-me-down airplanes, certainly not the newest. John Lehman aimed to change all this. He insisted that the third F/A-18 squadron be a reserve squadron. It was strongly resisted by the active Navy, but with a firm-handed Secretary behind the move, it worked out fine.”

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A VFC-12 A-4 and VF-101 F-14 square off during a training flight in June 1989. The reserve squadron based at NAS Oceana provides adversary services for many Navy squadrons, while VF-101 was the fleet replacement squadron (FRS) for Atlantic Fleet Tomcat squadrons. (Photo by Peter B. Mersky)

Attack Squadron (VA) 303 was the first Reserve squadron to receive F/A-18A Hornets in October 1985, becoming Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 303. While the basic reorganization of the reserves in 1970 was still viable, it needed parity with the fleet. Even with the rebirth after the Pueblo recall, the reserves still flew aircraft that were in the early stages of fleet retirement, such as the F-4 and A-7.

However, some modernization continued. The ancient E-1B Tracer was replaced by the turboprop E-2 Hawkeye. Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 88 of CVWR-30 received its first E-2s in time to take them on active duty in October 1977. The four Reserve fighter squadrons exchanged their F-4Bs for refurbished and updated F-4Ns. Carrier Tactical Electronics Warfare Squadrons (VAQ) 209 and VAQ-309 began flying a new aircraft, the EA-6A “Electric Intruder,” the electronic warfare (EW) version of Grumman’s highly successful A-6 medium attack bomber, offering EW and attack capabilities to the Reserve Component air wings. Big KA-3Bs flew with Tactical Aerial Refueling Squadron (VAK) 209 and VAK-309 as dedicated aerial tanker and occasional pathfinder squadrons. VA-304 had been flying A-6E Intruders since August 1988, but the large two-man attack jets were getting too old and hard to maintain. The squadron was disestablished in 1994, as was CVWR-30.

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Huey gunships of Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron (HAL) 4 and their crews prepare for a training mission from NAS Norfolk in 1985. (Photo by Peter B. Mersky)

All was not well, however, with other CVWR squadrons. The A-7B engines of the six light attack squadrons were aging more quickly than previously expected, and the reliability of the VA squadrons could not be counted on for the annual two-week active duty “cruise” of CVWR-30 at NAS Fallon, Nevada, which was nearly cancelled in May 1983. Orders were modified allowing two of the three A-7 units to still fly with the existing engines. A planned operational readiness inspection was cancelled.

At this same time, other NAR squadrons were receiving major upgrades. In June 1978, Norfolk’s VAW-78 accepted its first E-2C Hawkeyes, bringing the RC into fleet compatibility and enabling squadron members to volunteer for periods of active duty with fleet squadrons in the Mediterranean.

In October 1984, the RC got its first Grumman F-14 Tomcats when VF-301 at Miramar accepted F-14As to replace squadron F-4Ns. A day earlier, Light Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron (VFP) 306, one of the two remaining U.S. Crusader squadrons, was disestablished, leaving VFP-206 as the last RF-8G squadron in the Navy until March 1987, when it too was disestablished with appropriate fanfare. Cmdr. Dave Strong, a former A-6 pilot and now the last U.S. Crusader skipper, shook hands with Vought chief test pilot John Konrad, who had taken the XF8U-1 on its first flight in March 1955. Thus, the first and last Crusader pilots said farewell to one of the Navy and Marine Corps’ most loved and colorful fighters.

Another major development was the formation of the Patrol Squadron Master Augment Unit, or VP-MAU, which appeared Jan. 13, 1984. A new squadron was established at NAS Brunswick, Maine, a major VP base for the regular Navy. Oddly enough, since Brunswick had no NAR training unit, the new VP-MAU was placed under the administrative control of the commanding officer of NAS South Weymouth. The “Northern Sabers” were unique in that they flew the same P-3 Update II Orions as their fleet counterparts. The VP-MAU concept did not allow mobilization of the full unit, but let individual SELRES members be activated and sent to one of six fleet squadrons to Brunswick. VP-MAU members trained regularly with fleet squadrons. The new concept worked well, and another VP-MAU was established at NAS Moffett Field, south of San Francisco, California, in December 1986. Unfortunately, the MAUs were caught in a wave of cost-cutting following the Cold War and disestablished in 1991.

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SH-2F Seasprites from Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light (HSL) 74 at South Weymouth, Mass., fly over the islands in Boston Harbor. (U.S. Navy photo)

 

In the summer of 1989, echoing the 1976 TACAIR Test aboard USS Ranger with CVWR-30, CVWR-20 sailed aboard USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69), leaving Pier 11 at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia on July 24 for a 10-day cruise as the carrier’s assigned air wing. The RC air crews did very well, earning a boarding rate of 94 percent. After three days at sea, the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. (later Rear Adm.) J.J. Dantone, himself a fighter pilot, remarked, “I see no difference between USN and USNR aviators.”

By the 1990s, the NAR was enjoying a decent period of modernization and participation by SELRES in all types of squadrons. But events nearly halfway around the globe would push the NAR onto the world stage and highlight the contribution reservists could and would play on short notice.

Reserves in the Desert

The Naval Air Reserve was called upon again after the surprise Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. The small country was overwhelmed in a few days. After the initial shock the U.S., under President George H.W. Bush, who flew in World War II as an NAR combat pilot, gathered together a large coalition of countries, including a number of Arab nations, to eject the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein. But first, a huge effort was required to bring all the implements of war and the manpower to operate them to the potential combat theater of Southwest Asia. The overall effort was dubbed Operation Desert Shield. Several Reserve units were mobilized both en masse and also using individual reservists who had specific skills. No single NAR squadrons were activated except two helicopter squadrons, HCS-4 at Norfolk and HCS-5 at NAS Pt. Mugu.

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An HH-60 of Helicopter Combat Support Special Squadron (HCS) 5 approaches Ar’ar, a forward base on Saudi Arabia’s northeastern border with Iraq in February 1991.(Photo by AT2 R. Felmer)

By late December 1990, both squadrons had their two-helo detachments in-theater, under the combined call sign of “Spike.” They operated from a tent city at Tabuk that also housed a SAR unit of the Royal Saudi Air Force that flew four UH-1Ns. As the Jan. 16, 1991, deadline neared for Iraq to withdraw its forces from Kuwait, the Spikes received orders to move to Al Jouf, northeast of Tabuk. When Desert Shield changed to Desert Storm on the early morning of Jan. 17, the combined Reserve SAR force was in place in Saudi Arabia.

When the war began, the Spikes were told to put a two-plane detachment at Ar’ar to be better prepared to respond to calls for CSAR support. The Americans were on 24-hour call, seven days a week. They were called out occasionally—there were several other SAR assets from other services—and eventually flew a total of 461 sorties while contributing individual crewmen to help their Saudi compatriots when night vision goggles were needed.

The NAR’s participation in Desert Shield and Desert Storm did not involve a large number of entire squadrons recalled to active duty. Besides the two HCS squadrons—which would be redesginated Helicopter Sea Combat Squadrons (HSC) 84 and 85 in October 2006—four VR squadrons (VR-55 at Alameda, VR-57 at North Island, California, VR-58 at Jacksonville, Florida and VR-59 at Dallas, Texas) and their C-9s brought in large numbers of people and material during the preparatory stages. But overall, the Naval Reserve’s participation was impressive, with individuals serving in the medical, public affairs, administrative and intelligence fields.

War in the Balkans

After the overwhelming success of Desert Storm, there were changes in the NAR. CVWR-30 was disestablished in 1994, leaving CVWR-20 as the only carrier-capable Reserve air wing. The wing included two squadrons—now designated VFCs—flying the F/A-18 Hornet, and two E-2 Hawkeye squadrons, VAW-77 and VAW-78. The “Night Wolves” of VAW-77 were shore-based to help with anti-drug trafficking, while the “Fighting Escargots” of VAW-78 were to go aboard ship, if needed. There were two dedicated adversary squadrons: VFC-12 at NAS Oceana, in Virginia Beach, and VFC-13, which was stationed at NAS Miramar, California before moving to NAS Fallon. These two highly specialized units first flew the A-4 before transitioning to the F/A-18. Today, VFC-13 flies the F-5. A third adversary squadron flying F-5s took on an old World War II squadron’s designation as VFC-111, and is based at NAS Key West, Florida. CVWR-20’s rotary-wing contingent was HS-75, equipped with Sikorsky SH-60F and then HH-60H SAR helicopters.

A US Navy Northrop Grumman F-5F Tiger II from VFC-13, AF 20 76-1580, and a playmate F-5N from the VFC-111 Sundowners, AF 101 76-1548, cruise over the Atlantic Ocean.
A US Navy Northrop Grumman F-5F Tiger II from VFC-13, AF 20 76-1580, and a playmate F-5N from the VFC-111 Sundowners, AF 101 76-1548, cruise over the Atlantic Ocean. Photo courtesy of Ted Carlson, Fotodynamics)

 

Perhaps the most oft-publicized NAR squadron is the aforementioned Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 209 “Star Warriors,” who adopted Darth Vader as their squadron mascot when they formed up in 1977, the same year “Star Wars” hit theaters. The squadron transitioned in 1989 from the EA-6A to the four-seat EA-6B Prowler, which featured increased capabilities over the “Electric Intruder.” Its sister squadron, VAQ-309, made the same transition in 1990 before being disestablished in 1994, along with the rest of its air wing, CVWR-30.

In an unusual situation, NATO found itself involved in its first shooting war during the war in the Balkans, which spanned 1991 to 2001. Elements from many member nations were soon participating, including VAQ-209, based at Naval Air Facility, Washington, D.C., a tenant command since May 1990 at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

On April 16, 1999, with only four days’ notice, VAQ-209 was on its way to Aviano in northeastern Italy to support Operation Allied Force, a major campaign in the war-torn Balkans. The fleet’s complement of overworked Prowlers needed reinforcement to support what had become a 24/7 flight schedule. VAQ-209 flew 150 combat sorties before returning to Andrews on June 27.

The squadron continued its active-duty deployments with a March 2000 trip to Incirlik, Turkey, in support of Operation Northern Watch, a 2001 deployment to Saudi Arabia to help with Operation Southern Watch, and a 2002 return to Incirlik.

As former Prowler ECMO (Electronic Counter-Measures Officer) Lt. Cmdr. Rick Morgan notes:

Over the next 15 years, the Star Warriors made nine major deployments and flew combat missions in support of European, Pacific and Central Commands. Their ability to send EA-6Bs overseas for short periods (typically 90 days or less) gave the Navy a way to balance the new Joint EW requirement they got when the [U.S.] Air Force retired [its] EF-111 Ravens.

In the end, VAQ-209 made more forward deployments and flew more combat time than the rest of CVWR-20 and CVWR-30 combined.

In the Balkans [VAQ-209] was doing mostly classic SEAD [suppression of enemy air defenses] against the Serbian air defense network…Their deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan were largely counter-communications and counter-IED. The later mission was developed, very rapidly, by the community when RF-detonated IEDs became a major killer of [Allied] forces in both theaters.

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The 2011 members of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 209 stand by their Air Wing Commander’s bird at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Rick Morgan)

Post-9/11: New Responsibilities and the “Hunters” Go to War

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought all U.S. assets into play, including various Reserve elements. VAQ-209 deployed to Afghanistan for the first time between January and March 2008, again between March and May 2009, and for a third time in November 2009.

Following the 9/11 attacks and the buildup that resulted in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and later Operation Iraqi Freedom, the NAR, like most of America’s military forces, responded in a massive display of action against terrorist forces. By 2003, an established sequence of deployments of ships, squadrons and other groups had seen much success, but had not completely removed many of Hussein’s allies, especially in Afghanistan.

Carriers in the eastern Mediterranean were tasked with regular attacks in the Northern Arabian Gulf to support missions by Special Operations Forces (SOF) in northern Iraq. Internal political pressure in Turkey prevented the use of Turkish bases for staging purposes, placing a great burden on assets in the Mediterranean to carry out the war.

Rumors of mobilization of a single NAR squadron began circulating during the summer of 2002, and finally, that October, with three days to report, VFA-201 at Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base, Texas, received orders to join USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) and replace one of its carrier air wing’s (CVW-8) F/A-18 Hornet squadrons due for rotation.

Flying obsolescent F/A-18As, the “Hunters” of VFA-201 traded 12 of their Alphas in exchange for a dozen F/A-18A+ Hornets from their sister CVWR-20 squadron VFA-203. With the more advanced Hornets, which could accommodate current weapons carried by the F/A-18C, E and F models in the fleet, VFA-201 threw itself into hours of flight and maintenance training to be ready to deploy. After more than two months of intense workups, the Hunters joined CVW-8. On Jan. 31, 2003, the Roosevelt received orders to head out with its revamped air wing, which now included the first NAR squadron to be mobilized for combat since the Korean War. VFA-201 deployed with 217 officers and enlisted personnel, including both SELRES and FTS. There were engineers, construction contractors and airline technicians in the Hunters’ SELRES.

 

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An F/A-18A+ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 201 “Hunters” on a mission over Afghanistan in April 2003. (Photo by Capt. Mark Brazelton)

 

CVW-8 began combat operations on the night of March 22, 2003, when VFA-201 launched four squadron F/A-18s, each carrying two 2,000-pound GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munitions smart bombs, as part of a wing strike package against targets in the beleaguered Iraqi town of Fallujah.

Two days later, the Roosevelt headed north to begin a series of close air support missions, normally a Marine Corps specialty. Enemy opposition occasionally lit up the night sky with flak that appeared as green streaks in the pilots’ night vision goggles. They reported hunkering down in their cockpits as they broke hard to the north to get out of the area after delivering their ordnance. It was certainly not a drill weekend. The NAR was really in the war.

VFA-201 participated in daily strikes with other CVW-8 squadrons, including VF-213 and its F-14Ds and the EA-6Bs from VAQ-141. By the time they returned to the U.S. in late May, the Hunters had dropped more than 250,000 pounds of ordnance while flying 324 combat sorties across 1,407 flight hours. The squadron also enjoyed a 99-percent boarding rate, which earned it the CVW-8 “Top Hook” award.

People from several VR squadrons as well as HSC-84 and HSC-85 were again mobilized for CSAR duty from bases in Iraq and flying missions for SOF. HSC-84 maintained a presence in the Middle East until the entire squadron returned to Norfolk on Oct. 12, 2015. On March 19, HSC-84 was disestablished as a cost-cutting measure.

The Navy retained HSC-85 in San Diego as a dedicated SOF support squadron. Tactical Support Units (TSUs) currently help provide on-going training to maintain the proper level of expertise in prospective HSC-85 members and the Active Component HSC squadrons.

NAFR currently consists of Squadron Augmentation Units (SAUs), where RC instructor pilots are attached and operationally support every type model-series of Active Component aircraft at every Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS), which are often incorrectly referred to by the older designation, Replacement Air Group (RAG). The remaining SAUs support the Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA) mission with RC pilots. NAFR squadrons and SAUs span the United States and provide constant operational support to the U.S. Navy.

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A ground crew and their pilot stand by their Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 209 EA-18G Growler on deployment in Guam. (U.S. Navy photo)

 

On April 1, 2007, CVWR-20 was redesignated Tactical Support Wing (TSW) based at NAS Fort Worth, Texas Joint Reserve Base. The change came as VFA-203 and VAW-78 disestablished in 2005 following the 2000 findings of the Naval Reserve Redesign study. VFA-201 was also disestablished in June 2007, and VAW-77 went in 2013. Now composed of five squadrons and five SAUs, CVWR-20 could no longer be considered a deployable air wing, especially with the focus on VAQ-209’s ongoing expeditionary support of the fleet, and the fleet’s demand for adversary support. The TSW now includes one strike fighter squadron, VFA-204 at New Orleans; one electronic attack squadron, VAQ-209 at NAS Whidbey Island with their new EA-18G Growler that replaced the veteran EA-6B Prowler; and three adversary squadrons, VFC-12 at NAS Oceana, VFC-13 at NAS Fallon and VFC-111 at NAS Key West. The Navy cut most of its Active Component adversary program beginning in 1994. The Reserve VFCs went through a succession of different aircraft starting with the A-4, and then the F/A-18 and F-5.

A US Navy Lockheed P-3C Orion, LT 004 BuNo 163004 of the VP-62 "Broad Arrows" cruises over the Pacific Ocean.
A P-3C Orion from Patrol Squadron (VP) 62 out of NAS Jacksonville, Fla. (Photo by Ted Carlson, Fotodynamics)

Reservists have long been integrated with CNATRA. In fall 2001, FTS aviators were assigned to squadrons and wings while the first officers-in-charge were picked from other Reserve communities. There are currently 17 SAUs across five training air wings (Pensacola, Whiting, Meridian, Kingsville and Corpus Christi). CNATRA SELRES aviators each contribute a minimum of 60 days a year to producing new Naval Aviators. Reserve Component instructors, both SELRES and FTS, comprise 18-to-22 percent of the training program’s requirement.

The NAFR currently also consists of the Maritime Support Wing, which was established July 2015 under the Active Reserve Initiative to maintain the readiness of the Navy’s Reserve helicopter and maritime patrol (VP) units. Four Reserve Force Squadrons (RESFORONs) were a drastic curtailment of the expansive Reserve VP community and the helicopter specialty squadrons. The once-busy Reserve VP community faces a period of difficult decisions with only two P-3C squadrons—VP-62 at NAS Whidbey Island and VP-69 at NAS Jacksonville. While the fleet is slowly transitioning to the Boeing P-8, there are no plans to bring the 737 airliner derivative into the reserves. And as noted earlier, HSC-85 is the only remaining dedicated rotary-wing SOF support squadron, while Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 60 flies the MH-60R.

A US Navy Sikorsky SH-60B Seahawk, NW 600 BuNo 164853 of the HSL-60 "Jaguars" maneuvers over Florida.
Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 60 flies an SH-60B. (Photo by Ted Carlson, Fotodynamics)

Established in 2001, HSL-60 was redesignated HSM-60 in July 2015 after completing a full transition to the MH-60R Seahawk. The “Jaguars” continue deploying detachments aboard U.S. Navy ships, performing a variety of missions including SAR, naval gunfire support and counter-drug operations. One recently deployed detachment, embarked on USS Lassen (DDG 82), supported Southern Command’s Combatting Transnational Organized Crime mission. Since getting underway in February , this Jaguar detachment has conducted nine airborne use-of-force interdictions/seizures, detained 31 personnel and disrupted more than 7,600 kilos of narcotics in support of Operation Martillo.

The Naval Air Force Reserve continues to go through periods of change and transition, fine-tuning its missions and the skills of its individual members. Its transport squadrons (VRs) are also refining their roster of equipment to meet cost-saving measures, while one of the possibly least known but certainly important groups is the Fleet Logistics Support Wing (FSLW). Anyone in the Navy has probably used the services of one of the wing’s aircraft and crew. They could be referred to as the Navy’s airline, carrying large amounts of vital freight to support the large number of operations and units throughout the world.

The veteran C-9, once flown by as many as 15 squadrons, by 2014 had seen three of its VR squadrons disestablished and the FLSW retire its airframe. Now, it is the C-9 that is going away, replaced by big Boeing 737-700s (designated C-40s in the Navy). Initial C-40As were delivered with standard wings, but airline use showed significant fuel savings when winglets were installed. Thus, from C-40A No. 9, the new transports came with winglets built by Boeing. Earlier aircraft were retrofitted with winglets. The C-40 combines the fuselage of a Boeing 747-700C with the strengthened wings and landing gear of the 737-800, along with the modification of a large cargo door. Five VRs have C-40s and another five squadrons use C-130Ts. One squadron flies C-20Gs, military Gulfstream IVs, while two Executive Transport Detachments fly senior Navy officials in C-37s (Gulfstream Vs) and C-20Gs.

A US Navy Boeing C-40A Clipper II, (JV) 165832 from the VR-58 "Sunseekers" cruises over the Atlantic Ocean.
A Fleet Logistics Support Squadron (VR) 58 C-40A with its distinctive winglets. (Photo by Ted Carlson, Fotodynamics)

Rear Adm. William Crane, Chief, Navy Air Force Reserve, recently noted that “the VR community specializes in short-notice emergent, high-priority lift, and CNAF considers our medium-lift aircraft to be his lowest-density/highest-demand airframes on a regular basis.”

The VR wing is deployed throughout the year outside the continental United States supporting theater commanders’ logistics requirements.

A few of the wing’s most recent missions include quickly transporting Sailors captured and eventually released by Iran when they mistakenly entered the nation’s waters in January; evacuating Navy personnel on Andros Island and 28,000 pounds of cargo when a Category 4 hurricane bore down on the Bahamas; and C-130 support of SEAL operations for a surge deployment during U.S. Pacific Command area of responsibility operations.

Lt. Wes Holzapfel, public affairs officer for the CNAFR summed up today’s Naval Air Force Reserve:

The Sailors of NAFR are warfighters who provide the fleet with operational support to prepare for and operate forward in any theater. Today’s NAFR consists of 23 fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft squadrons as well as 26 SAUs, some of which support every type/model/series of active component aircraft at every Fleet Replacement Squadron while others support CNATRA’s mission. NAFR squadrons span the United States and maintain a constant presence throughout the world.

The NARF has slimmed down since the 1980s while retaining its capabilities. To borrow from the title of a recent book by Cmdr. David F. Winkler commemorating the Naval Reserve’s centennial of 2015, the “Naval Air Reserve is Ready Then, Ready Now, Ready Always.”

Cmdr. Peter B. Mersky, USNR (Ret.) was commissioned through Aviation Officer Candidate School in 1968 and remained a reservist, serving in various intelligence billets as well as two tours with Light Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron (VFP) 306 until retiring in 1992. He was the first civilian editor of “Approach” magazine, has been a volunteer associate with Naval Aviation News since 1971, and has written NAN’s book review column since 1982 to include some 700 book reviews for NAN and other publications plus 16 books on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Aviation.


Author Acknowledgements: I thank the following people in order of seniority for taking time from their busy schedules to provide advice, information and, most importantly, support. Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn, USN (Ret.), former Chief, Naval Reserve (CNR); Vice Adm. John G. Cotton, USN (Ret.), former CNR; Vice Adm. Robin Braun, CNR; Rear Adm. Samuel J. Cox, USN, (Ret), Director, Naval History & Heritage Command; Rear Adm. John Sadler, Deputy Director Maritime Operations, U.S. Fleet Forces Command; Rear Adm. William M. Crane, Chief Navy Air Force Reserve (CNAFR); Capt. Rosario Rausa, USNR, Training and Administration of Reserves (TAR) (Ret.); Capt. Scott Eargle, Commodore, Fleet Logistics Support Wing; Capt. Marc Orgain, Commodore Maritime Support Wing; Capt. John P. Mooney, Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA), Reserve Component Commander; Capt. Mark D. Brazelton, Deputy Commodore Tactical Support Wing (TSW); Capt. R.T. Rascoll and Lt. Dani Still, Navy Air Logistics Office; Cmdr. Rob Teague, Public Affairs Officer, TSW; Lt. Cmdr. William F. Murphy, Deputy Executive Assistant to CNR; Lt. Cmdr. Rick Morgan, USN (Ret.); Lt. Wesley A. Holzapfel, Public Affairs Officer, CNAFR; Lt. Adamantios Kouloumoundras, Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 209; Aviation Warfare Systems Operator 1st Class Marc Frattasio, USNR (Ret.); Nicholas J. Thrasher, Editor in Chief, Naval Aviation Museum Foundation; Tony Holmes, Ted Carlson and Warren Thompson.