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The Sea Wings Legacy

Their idea is that they steam around in the open oceans and attack naval targets ashore, such as ports and naval airfields, that they fight other people’s navies at sea and defend their carriers and amphibious forces from assault. With the Soviet air and naval threat having receded, naval aviation shifted its focus towards precision attack on targets further inland. The McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet was arguably the centerpiece of this shift; having initially entered service in the ‘80s as a replacement for the LTV A-7E Corsair II in the “light attack” role. In the ‘90s the Hornet truly emerged as an authentic “strike” fighter capable of precision attack. It was also during the mid- ‘90s that ground-attack capabilities were adapted to the F-14. Another reminder the ‘90s were a transitional period was the enduring presence of the A-6. Operationally introduced in 1963, the Intruder was on its way out. ’95 was the last time an A-6 would fly aboard Abe and be assigned to CVW-11 and the platform would officially retire two years later, bringing the era of “medium attack” to a close. The Intruder probably exited at the top of its game, however. Having received its final upgrade under the Systems/Weapons Improvement Program (SWIP), the last Intruders standing exceeded their reputation as mere “bomb trucks;” they could employ a dizzying array of precision-guided weaponry, including AGM-65 Maverick and AGM-84E SLAM land-attack missiles, AGM-88 HARMs for air defense suppression, and laser-guided bombs. While the priceless KA-6D Tanker variant had been retired the year before, A-6Es could still perform as mid-air refuelers using buddy stores, another reminder of the platform’s versatility. Still, it might have been as good a time as any for the A-6 to go. “Adapting F-14s to the air-to-ground role and the advent of GPS-guided weaponry rendered the Intruder obsolete,” said . “The Intruder was a relic that performed past her prime due to the community’s creativity and professionalism. You don’t need a plane that carries 30 500-pound bombs anymore.” Apart from the tanker role, the F-14 would ultimately fill the A-6’s shoes admirably, in some cases exceeding them. Other platforms, such as the Sikorsky SH-3H Sea King helicopter, ended operational service with the Navy in the mid-‘90s, replaced by the Sikorsky SH-60F/HH-60G Seahawks in the anti-submarine warfare (ASW), search-and-rescue, and utility roles. The Lockheed S-3 Viking had been upgraded to the advanced ‘B’ variant by this point, though its ASW mission faded in the late-‘90s and serve almost exclusively as a maritime surveillance aircraft and tanker until its retirement in 2009. Naval aviation underwent changes on land as well. In 1995, the Navy Fighter Weapons School, better-known as TOPGUN, was still located at iconic Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego. A year later, however, as part of post-Cold War base realignment and closure programs, NAS Miramar was transferred to the Marine Corps and TOPGUN moved to NAS Fallon, Nevada, where Naval Strike Warfare Center (STRIKE “U”) had been located for over ten years. TOPGUN, along with STRIKE “U” and other schools, were consolidated under a single umbrella organization known as the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, now known as Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center. The decision to hand Miramar to the Marines had other repercussions. All F-14 squadrons, for example, regardless of whether they were assigned to an East Coast or West Coast air wing, were consolidated at NAS Oceana, Virginia. Of course, the F-14 was set to be retired in the mid-2000s and their units transitioned into F/A-18E/F Super Hornet squadrons, so the decision made organizational sense. Institutional changes were abound in the ‘90s. The combat exclusion policy for female servicemembers had been lifted in 1993, opening the door for women to serve as combat aviators. Abe saw a number of women flying off her flight deck, including Carey Lohrenz of VF-213. Brenda Scheufele flew F/A-18C Hornets for Strike Fighter Squadron 94 (VFA-94) “Mighty Shrikes” and was featured in the Sea Wings episode The Killer Bee. Transitional periods were nothing new for the Navy, of course. The service underwent a particularly notable one in the 1970s following the Vietnam War. It is arguably undergoing another one now as the U.S. attempts to leave behind smaller, more limited wars in theaters like Afghanistan and Iraq and re-orient itself towards what it sees as burgeoning “great power” conflict with China and Russia. But as the saying goes, “it’s not about the destination, it is about the journey.” The mission of naval aviation is an ongoing one, validated not necessarily by what the communities and services anticipate, but by their ability to adapt to new missions and realities that deliver unexpected challenges. “Because of the history and ethos of the seafaring community, creativity and freethinking are baked into the DNA of the U.S. Navy,” said Paco. “The flexibility of the organization and the delegation of decision making to the lowest level of pilots is unparalleled in the military.” Indeed, when it came time for the next big war, naval aviation was ready. As Vice Admiral Timothy J. Keating assessed the summer prior to 9/11, “A carrier air wing can strike five times as many aimpoints each day as its predecessors could in Operation Desert Storm.” Which was to say, the 21st century carrier air wing, even with its reduced complement and the retirement of platforms like the A-6, was still able to hit more targets than a larger-sized Cold War-era air wing. A decade of hard work had produced an even more formidable force. For the men and women who took part in the transition, it was also a great time. Just ask Paco, who has since added novelist to his list of accomplishments by authoring Lions of the Sky, about his appearance in Sea Wings! “I don’t remember the details, except that it was great, and a lot of fun!”
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