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"Cactus Air Force" Comes to Iraq

Navy NewsStand

Story Number: NNS051207-04
Release Date: 12/7/2005 10:33:00 AM

By Lt.j.g. Charles Liles, USS Theodore Roosevelt Public Affairs

ABOARD USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT (NNS) -- In late November, approximately 50 aircrew and maintenance personnel from the Valions of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 15 and the Golden Warriors of VFA-87 detached to Al Asad, Iraq, with five F/A-18C Hornet aircraft.

The detachment was designed to sustain naval tactical air presence in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom while USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) executed a scheduled port call in the United Arab Emirates. Navy personnel deployed to Al Asad christened the makeshift detachment the “Cactus Air Force.”

The term “Cactus Air Force” originated during World War II to describe the makeshift collection of Navy, Marine and Air Force combat aircraft assembled during the defense of Guadalcanal (“Cactus” was the Allied codeword for the island).

Similar to the original Cactus Air Force, the planes operating out of Al Asad included multiple types of aircraft from the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.

Although operating in a foreign environment totally different from an aircraft carrier, the Sailors of VFA-15 and VFA-87 provided combat-ready aircraft under the most challenging of circumstances.

As Sailors from Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8 arrived in Al Asad, they had to overcome numerous obstacles to operate successfully in Iraq. Chief Aviation Machinist's Mate James Cunningham of VFA-87 pointed out some of the initial difficulties.

“We had to pistol qualify all detached personnel. We then had to issue pistols and ammo to each person, along with flack jackets and cold weather gear,” Cunningham said.

The maintainers in the detachment also had to pack enough tools and spare parts to maintain the Hornet contingent for at least a week.

“If we didn’t have a part that we needed, the Marines from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 332 were always more than willing to lend us a hand,” said Storekeeper 2nd Class Teddy Mirjah, of VFA-15.

CVW-8 Sailors commandeered an abandoned MiG-25 hangar for their work center, and, coordinating with maintainers from Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 141, the Hornet maintenance personnel were able to set up an efficient working environment in a relatively short time.

Everyone had to adjust to Al Asad’s living conditions. Each Sailor was housed in temporary living units called “cans,” which were furnished only with a bed and an electric heater.

Navy personnel had to keep a firearm and body armor on or near their person at all times.

“I came to appreciate what the Marines have to go through over here,” said Aviation Maintenance Administrationman 2nd Class Kirfred Watkins. “The living conditions are rough, and many of them spend a year deployed in Iraq with little or no leave.”

Given the difficulties of setting up a detachment in the Iraqi desert, Sailors from CVW 8 performed admirably.

“I could not have asked for a better group of maintainers,” said Ensign John E. Harris, the Detachment Maintenance Officer.

He also noted the contributions VAQ-141, VMFA-332, Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 26, Marine Air Logistics Squadron (MALS) 26, and particularly Lt. Ramiro Flores, the detachment coordinator back on board Theodore Roosevelt.

“The detachment was a tremendous success,” said Capt. William G. Sizemore, commander, Carrier Air Wing 8. “The Navy brought 5 F/A-18Cs and 37 maintenance personnel to Al Asad and flew 8 sorties a day during a 12-hour flight window. The team effort between the Sailors maintaining the Hornets and the Marines of VMFA-332 was the top contributing factor to our success here in Iraq.”

Situated west of Baghdad in the desert just south of the Euphrates, Al Asad was constructed next to a palm grove called “Abraham’s Oasis.” (Local legend maintains that the biblical Abraham dipped his feet in the spring while passing through.) The facility was once Saddam Hussein’s premier MiG-25 Foxbat airbase.

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