Florida Keys News
Friday, April 18, 2014
Fighter squadrons roaring into town
Uptick in air-to-air combat training at NAS

A slow month of March around Naval Air Station Key West will give way to a handful of squadrons roaring in and out of Boca Chica Field beginning this weekend.

The slow thaw up north as spring nears typically means a downturn in squadron action out at Boca Chica Field, but this month through June will prove different.

"We are gearing up to host Navy and Marine fighter and electronic attack squadrons from across the country for the next few weeks," said Naval Air Station Key West commanding officer Capt. Steve McAlearney. "It will be busy out here at Boca Chica, and that's the way we like it, as these warfighters get the best air-to-air combat training in the world out on our training ranges."

That means Key West's own Composite Fighter Squadron 111 (VFC-111), also known as the Sun Downers, will be busy playing the bad guys. They're Key West's only home squadron, and they teach those who fly the familiar F/A-18 Super Hornets or its variants.

The visiting squadrons include NAS Key West's "regular customers" such as Strike Fighter Squadron 106 (VFA-106), also known as the Gladiators, based primarily out of Oceana, Va. The Gladiators also keep a permanent contingent of personnel in Key West.

Incoming Strike Fighter Squadrons 25 and 97 (VFA-25 and VFA-97) should be arriving today and this weekend and will be keeping the Sun Downers busy through May, said NAS Key West spokeswoman Trice Denny.

• VFA-25, known as "The Fist of the Fleet," is part of four large airwings based out of Naval Air Station Lemoore in Fresno County, Calif. They fly the F/A-18E Super Hornet, and have seen action over Afghanistan and Iraq in the last 13 years.

• VFA-97, known as the "Warhawks," is also based out of NAS Lemoore. They were one of the first squadrons rushed to the North Arabian Sea after the 9/11 attacks. The Warhawks also fly the F/A-18E Super Hornet.

• The Marine Corps is sending an electronic attack squadron and a slew of EA-6B Prowlers to Key West, which specialize in jamming enemy radar, and gathering radio intelligence. Last year, the military announced the Navy would be moving from the EA-6B Prowler to the EA-18G Growler, and the Marines would be training its own Prowler air crews. Prior to that, the Navy trained Marine Prowler pilots.

Keys residents would probably more readily recognize the Growler, which is a specialized version of the familiar two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet commonly seen flying in and out of Boca Chica Field.

• Not to be outdone, the Pittsburgh IAP Air Reserve Station, an Air Force Base at Pittsburgh International Airport in Pennsylvania, is sending some large, four-prop C-130s to Boca Chica Field. The visiting crews are part of the 911th Airlift Wing, which performs part of the Air Force's heavy lifting and air refueling.

"We expect June to be quite busy as well," Denny said of the upcoming training. "We're shaping up to have quite a busy spring into summer."

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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