This is the 5th installment of my husband’s guest post series. My husband is a F-18 pilot in the United States Navy and these blog posts are his experience in becoming a Naval Aviator. Later posts will talk about his experience being a pilot in a squadron, what deployments aboard an aircraft carrier are like, and other related topics. He has been a qualified F-18 pilot since March 2007, and he has been a Naval Officer for 10 years.
The Replacement Air Group (“The RAG”) in Virginia Beach
The day I earned my wings at Meridian, my Skipper handed my classmates and me our next Orders. Between the options of EA-6B Prowler, FA-18C, or FA-18E/F, I was selected to fly the FA-18E/F (F-18) Super Hornet, which was my top choice. I was to report to NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach, VA, to begin training at VFA-106. Even though I was a winged aviator, I was still far from being a tactical aviator; basically, I was qualified to learn how to fly a F-18, but I did not have the skills to actually fly the jet or be useful to the Navy in any way.
VFA-106 and its counterpart in Lemoore, CA, are officially known as the “FRS” (Fleet Replacement Squadron) or unofficially as the “RAG” for Replacement Air Group, as it was called prior to the 2000s. Most of us aviators still refer to the FRS as the “RAG”.
When I was a student at VAF-106 (known to aviators as “106”), it was filled with instructors who had recently transitioned from the F-14 Tomcat to the FA-18 Super Hornet. The Tomcat, made famous in the movie Top Gun, had outlived its usefulness by the 2000s and was replaced by the Super Hornet. The people who flew the Tomcat rarely let us students go more than 90 seconds without reminding us they flew the “big fighter”. Their community and culture was one of “fighter spirit,” which was an excuse to be an asshole to anyone who didn’t fly the F-14, notably us students. When they went through the F-14 RAG as students, they were taught by instructors who were assholes to them, so they brought that mindset to 106 when they were teaching us to fly the Super Hornet. I say all that having eventually bought into the concept of Fighter Spirit and keeping alive old traditions. I just wished they could let go of their old airplane and embrace the new one.
The syllabus at 106 was demanding, but for completely different reasons than flight school. Because we were already winged pilots, there was no robust syllabus of instrument flights and navigation exercises. We were pilots and expected to know how to fly the F-18 soon after starting at 106.
After a series of simulators, my first flight was with an instructor pilot in the back seat. We flew off the coast of Virginia where I went super sonic for the first time and I also took a crack at putting the Super Hornet through its paces.
My second flight was also with an instructor, but this time it was a WSO, a Weapon System Officer. A WSO isn’t a pilot and does not know how to fly a jet, and, unlike the pilot I flew with for my first flight, the WSO had no controls in the back of the jet. Let me say that again: my second-ever flight in a FA-18 Super Hornet was with a person who didn’t know how to fly. It was a surreal experience being the only person in charge of the aircraft, even though I was flying with someone considerably more senior to me.
Very soon after arriving at 106, the powers-that-be asked my classmates and me if we wanted FA-18Es or FA-18Fs. The “E” has one seat, and the “F” has two seats. As I mentioned before, my instructors were all F-14 guys. The F-14 had two seats because it couldn’t operate without two people operating it. So, all of our instructors said that two seats would be better than one. On the other hand, F-18Es and FA-18Fs perform the exact same missions. Why are there two different versions, you ask? I’ve been flying it for over 8 years and I have no logical answer to give you. There are a lot of politics involved in the “F”, and I’ll leave it at that. Today, VFA-106 doesn’t decide who will fly an E or F until much later in the syllabus.
Since all my instructors told me that flying a two-seat jet was best, that’s what I requested. In fact, all of my classmates requested a two seater (the F). Because we all couldn’t be “F” guys, 4 of us were given “E’s”. I was initially a bit upset about it. I heard the horror stories about how much work it was to be single seat, how I would never have any free time, or any fun in the squadron. I didn’t know whether that was true or not at the time (it wasn’t), but I did know that the first time I strapped into a brand new single seat Super Hornet and took it flying, I didn’t care if it was true or not. There is very little that could possibly describe how awesome it is to take a high performance fighter jet seemingly designed just for you to the edge of the envelope and back, just because you can.
After familiarization with the jet, the rest of the syllabus consisted of three separate phases: Air to Ground, Air to Air, and CQ (carrier qualification).
Air to ground training takes place in El Centro, CA, or Fallon, NV. The reason we go to those specific locations is because we can go to bombing ranges there. There aren’t many locations on the east coast where we are allowed to drop live ordinance.
The air to ground training syllabus was designed to teach “task management” for the first time. There are a lot of systems to manage in the Super Hornet, and it takes some serious practice to safely and effectively fly the jet while manipulating different buttons, switches, and computers. If not done correctly, a weapon will not come off the jet at all, or, even worse, it will go to the wrong location. So, we spent 2 full weeks flying at least once a day, usually twice a day, practicing many of the air to ground capabilities of the jet. The best flights were low level training where we take the jet as low as 100 feet above the ground at no less than 400 knots, and “live day” where we drop real 500lb bombs. Prior to “live day”, we drop what we lovingly call “blue death,” which is a 25lb practice bomb that accurately simulates the characteristics real bombs, but doesn’t have the same impact as 500lbs of explosives.
Air-to-air training takes place in Key West, FL, where we learn to “task manage” while also being a good wingman. It is incredibly challenging to keep your jet in formation based on another jet, while simultaneously attempting to manipulate the RADAR and cue an air-to-air weapon onto the right bandit at 1000kts of closure. Over the course of two weeks we start off learning to be a good wingman with only two jets flying against two simulated bad guys and then ramp it up to 4 jets against an unknown number of bad guys. The better you are at staying in the correct formation, the easier it is to get said bad guys. It is here in Key West where we began learning the tactical stuff that would make us useful Naval aviators.
After Key West, it was time again for CQ (carrier qualification) phase on the boat, but this time we had to land at night in a Super Hornet. After nearly a month of landing practice, we found ourselves on the aircraft carrier. My memories of CQ are a bit of a blur, but I do know that the previous T-45 experience helped me because I had a better idea what to expect. I don’t remember how I felt when I landed on the carrier at night for the first time, but I can tell you now that I wasn’t as scared as I should have been. I can’t think of anything less pleasant than a night trap, especially on an extremely dark night. Considering that I qualified, I must have done alright. It was an incredibly rewarding experience to be a carrier-qualified aviator in the most advanced tactical jet aircraft that the Navy has to offer.
The final step in the RAG was to find out what fleet squadron I was going to. We do that via a ceremony called a “patching”, where the fleet squadrons gather at the O’Club (Officers Club) on base, and, with great flair, ripped off the patches on our flight suits from the RAG and put their own on.
I was given the patches of the World Famous VFA-143 Pukin’ Dogs, where I would finally enter the real world of tactical Naval aviation.
As a wife, I just want to say that attending patchings is pretty exciting. I did not know my husband when he was patched, but we were married by the time he was an instructor at the RAG (spoiler alert), and attended all of the patchings that I could. The students sometimes know ahead of time where they are going because the Navy quickly issues the students Orders if they have to move overseas or to the other side of the country.
Also of note is that if a pilot is #1 in his class and landing on the carrier, the pilot will probably receive Orders to Japan. The main reason for this is because the seas here are considerably more rough then elsewhere, so the squadrons that are stationed out here need the best that the RAG has to offer.
If a student does not qualify on the carrier (which happens sometimes!), the student faces repercussions. The people we know who did not qualify on the carrier were sent to a RAG for an airplane that does not land on the carrier. I believe that there are other options as well, but I don’t want to give bad information here 🙂 Since the Navy has already made a huge investment in the student, the student will probably continue to fly.