Strike Fighter Squadron EIGHT ONE [VFA-81]
Strike Fighter Squadron EIGHT ONE (VFA-81) "Sunliners" are assigned to Carrier Air Wing 17, presently deployed onboard USS GEORGE WASHINGTON (CVN-73). They were one of the first carrier based squadrons to fly combat missions during Operation Desert Storm. The only Navy MIG kills during Operation Desert Storm are credited to two VFA 81 jets. They participated in the last Mediterranean deployment of the carrier USS Saratoga (CV 60); which was decommissioned in August 1994, and have been assigned to the USS Enterprise.
The Sunliners were originally commissioned as Fighter Squadron EIGHT ONE (VF-81), and all weather fighter interceptor squadron on 1 July 1955, flying the Grumman F9F-8 "Cougar". Originally called the "CRUSADERS" the squadron made two Mediterranean cruises before their mission, designation, and aircraft changed with a transition to the A4D-2 "Skyhawk" in March 1959. After becoming Attack Squadron EIGHT ONE (VA-81), they made multiple deployments with Second and Sixth Fleet aboard USS SHANGRI-LA (CVA-38) and USS FORRESTAL (CVA-59).
During this time, the orange "Supersonic Nothing" adorned the vertical stabilizer of three types of A-4's. In 1963 the squadron adopted the name Sunliners, and the official squadron emblem, an orange mach wave on a black field. At the time the motto, "Anytime, Anyplace" was selected as the squadron's answer to any challenge it is called upon to perform on land, sea or air.
In February 1970, the Sunliners won the coveted Navy Battle "E" for East Coast A-4 squadrons and were selected to be the first East Coast squadron to receive the Navy's newest attack aircraft, the A-7E Corsair II. The Sunliners took their new aircraft aboard USS FORRESTAL (CVA-59) with Carrier Air Wing SEVENTEEN (CVW-17) in January 1971 on their twelfth Mediterranean deployment. By the end of the 1974 competitive cycle, the orange tailed "ZAPPERS" had demonstrated sustained excellence by winning three Light Attack Wing ONE bombing derbies and a second Navy Battle "E".
On 7 August 1990, the Sunliners deployed along with CVW-17 aboard USS SARATOGA (CV-60) for their first F/A-18 "Hornet" cruise and new mission as a Strike Fighter Squadron. This deployment took place one week after Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and VFA-81 participated in both Operation DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM as part of the Red Sea Battle Force. Before the war's end the Sunliners scored the Navy's only two aerial victories by downing two Iraqi MiG-21's. VFA-81 returned to NAS Cecil Field on 27 March 1991, following the swift coalition victory. Upon completion of its deployment the squadron was redesignated VFA 81 and commenced a training phase preparatory to the squadron's introduction to the F/A-18 Hornet. The last full year of Corsair II operation, the squadron won the COMNAVAIRLANT Battle "E".
The squadron found themselves deployed 6 May 1992 onboard the USS SARATOGA (CV-60) participating in several NATO exercises before returning home on 6 November 1992. The "Sunliners" had completed 24 Mediterranean deployments, most of them aboard the Mayport based carrier USS Forrestal (CV 59). In early 1994, the squadron participated in Operations DENY FLIGHT and PROVIDE PROMISE supporting United Nations (UN) resolutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the last deployment of USS SARATOGA (CV-60). The was VFA-81's third Hornet cruise, and the first Atlantic Fleet deployment with the AMRAAM missile. VFA-81 the cruised on the USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65) in 1996 for their 26th Mediterranean Cruise. The Sunliners participated in Operation SOUTHERN WATCH and made the very first carrier port call to Bahrain. The USS DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (CVN-69) cruise began 10 June 1998 and found VFA-81 again in the Operation SOUTHERN WATCH arena. This was the first East Coast cruise the the new Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW), a long range glide cluster bomb.
The Inter-deployment Training Cycle (IDTC) began in earnest with the strike fighter advanced readiness program (SFARP) Air-to-Air Det in Key West during September 1999. With the Air Force and VFC-12 providing bandit support, the Liners were able to prove their aerial prowess as well as enjoy a few weeks of VFR flying and great liberty. The Air-to-Ground portion continued with a Fallon Det in October 1999 in which the Liners were able to add to the lessons learned in Key West as well as put steel on target. Prior to the holidays, the squadron embarked on the USS George Washington (CVN-73) and was busily engaged in carrier qualifications, cyclic operations, and the initial ship/air wing integration. The new millennium saw the "SUNLINERS" returning to Fallon to participate in a very successful Air Wing detachment in Fallon. Many hours were spent strike planning and flying coordinated air wing events. The Liners and the CVW-17 team left Fallon with a high level of tactical readiness.
COMPTUEX was one of the final stages of the work-up cycle. Unable to work in the Puerto Rican OPAREA because Vieques target was closed, the Liners' "March Madness" consisted of finding training opportunities elsewhere. The George Washington Battle Group broke new ground and developed new exercises that could be implemented stateside. After using targets in northern Florida, the Battle Group then transitioned to the southwestern Florida coast for training in the Key West OPAREA and Avon Park Range. For the final weeks the Liners found themselves getting reacquainted with the cradle of Naval Aviation by utilizing the Pensacola and adjacent Eglin Ranges. The multiple ranges being utilized made target study a high priority as pilots had to be familiar with varied impact sites. Valuable training was also achieved in the air-to-air arena with CVW-8 providing orange air for the Air Wing during the war scenario. The Liners stayed busy throughout the six week period as COMCARGRU 4 evaluated the GWBATGRU's ability to perform in some very challenging real-world scenarios. In addition to traditional COMPTUEX events, AIR WING pilots honed their acquisition skills by locating specific targets in various east coast U.S. military ranges. These "needle in a haystack" events were a direct result of the targeting challenges encountered during recent operations in Kosovo.
In mid-2000 the "Sunliners" of VFA-81 completed JTFEX as the final portion of their Inter-Deployment Training Cycle (IDTC). Working in the VACAPES and Cherry Point op-areas, the Liners and the CVW-17 team focused on joint operations as they trained for their upcoming deployment. JTFEX provided the air wing a chance to participate in all phases of a war including naval presence, show of force, and a final hostilities phase. The Liners maintenance department rose to this challenge of simulated warfare by keeping up jets and working FLIRs on the flight deck and loaded with ordnance. The Liners also integrated with other forces as they utilized Air Force tanking assets, supported the Army's 101st Airborne Division, and provided air cover for the Marines during amphibious landings. The simulated war scenario closely resembled ongoing conflicts and put the finishing touches on the ITDC. In addition to strike sorties into North Carolina, the Liners planned and participated in several long range strikes. These strikes originated off the Carolina coast and flew nonstop to ranges in the panhandle of Florida and then returned to the ship, proving the Liners motto of "Anytime, Anyplace." JTFEX was the Liners last event before they deploy in June aboard the USS George Washington (CVN-73).
The Liners' boarded the USS George Washington (CVN-73) on 21 June 2000. After a few days of carrier qualification off the Virginia coast, the ship headed south for two days of airwing strikes against the outstanding targets on the island of Vieques. This was the first time that an Airwing was able to conduct air-to-ground training since the closing of the range the previous year. After these valuable exercises were conducted, the battle group formed for its transit across the Atlantic Ocean. Arriving in the Straits of Gibraltar on the 5th of July, the squadron was on the flight deck in force taking in the opportunity to view two continents simultaneously. A few days of Mediterranean operations followed enroute to the Adriatic Sea to support operations in that theater. Due to the clear weather the rugged coastline of Croatia was easily viewed from the flight deck. The George Washington then transited south of Crete on its way to Antalya, Turkey for the first port visit of cruise.
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