It was appropriate that one of the last air crews flying over Iraq as U.S. forces completed their withdrawal in December would be the Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 124.
The squadron and its twin-turboprop E-2 Hawkeye airplanes -- currently the only propeller-driven planes in the Navy that operate from aircraft carriers -- had been flying over Iraq as part of Operation Southern Watch after Operation Desert Storm on and off since 1991.
The VAW-124 squadron uses the sensitive Hawkeyes to gather intelligence, such as the location of enemy and friendly aircraft, and then feeds that information back to pilots and commanders.
"We are the linchpin for all the different assets in the air, so commanders can see the broader picture," said VAW-124 Cmdr. Garrett Campbell. "We get over the top of the battleground or strike group and build that big picture."
The odd-looking aircraft are in Key West this month as part of the Strike Fighter Advanced Readiness Program, which has drawn hundreds of sailors to Boca Chica Field for the Strike Fighter Advanced Readiness Program that will drill pilots, maintenance crews and everyone else involved in a squadron's success in air-to-air and air-to-ground combat.
Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron VAW-124 is in town as part of Carrier Air Wing 8, which is attached to the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush.
The Strike Fighter Advanced Readiness Program prepares pilots for deployment overseas.
"We have 500 to 600 folks in town that will keep us very busy at Boca Chica Field through the middle of next month," said Naval Air Station (NAS) Key West spokeswoman Trice Denny. "That includes the Hawkeyes."
The Hawkeyes stand out from the typical F/A-18 Hornet jet fighters that residents may be accustomed to seeing, Denny said. Pilots from at least five different squadrons are descending on Boca Chica Field this month.
And it's the VAW-124's job to coordinate all of them in the air. They use radar and myriad other sensory gear to paint the picture commanders require: Where are the good guys and where is the enemy?
"The E-2 Hawkeye community is really always here in the background and has utilized Boca Chica Field for decades, whether it was through the Advanced Readiness Program or when we utilized it for aircraft carrier landing practice up until 2002," Campbell said.
The increased air traffic over the Lower Keys will continue into November, Denny said. And the VAW-124 will continue to coordinate those planes in the air as the squadrons prepare for war.
"What's wonderful about coming down to Key West is that it's a great resort town as well and it allows our crews in the air and on the ground to really come together on and outside of work and really means a lot in terms solidifying our team," Campbell said.