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'Black Aces' Take Flight for Valiant Shield

Navy NewsStand

Story Number: NNS070817-05
Release Date: 8/17/2007 12:32:00 PM

By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Dustin Q. Diaz, USS Nimitz Public Affairs

USS NIMITZ, At Sea (NNS) -- The “Black Aces” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 41 are flying critical missions in support of the joint-force Exercise Valiant Shield 2007 in the vicinity of Guam Aug. 7-15.

The F/A-18F Super Hornet squadron is attached to the embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 11 embarked on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68). CVW-11 is one of three air wings operating in the weeklong joint training exercise. CVW-9 aboard USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) and CVW-5 aboard USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) are also participating in Valiant Shield.

The exercise focuses on integrated joint training among U.S. military forces, enabling real-world proficiency in sustaining joint forces and in detecting, locating, tracking and engaging units at sea, in the air, on the land and in cyberspace in response to a range of mission areas. Valiant Shield also provides a staff training opportunity for joint command and control of forces for the Hawaii-based Joint Task Force 519 staff and functional component commanders.

According to Lt. Ryan Clarke, a pilot with VFA-41, the contributions of squadrons like the Black Aces are critical to the success of Valiant Shield, which involves more than 22,000 service members from the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marine Corps. The pilots of VFA-41 are flying maritime interdiction, defensive counter-air and tanking missions. This differs from their operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), mainly because squadrons are more accustomed to flying missions in those theaters.

“This is old-school Navy stuff; it’s similar to Cold War-era operations,” Clarke said. “Missions in the Gulf follow an established pattern. We fly over the beach and support troops on the ground. This is completely different. It’s more like war at sea.”

While sharing air space can be daunting for 280 aircraft, Clarke said that the Black Aces are up to the challenge and have done much to prepare, beginning prior to deployment in Fallon, Nev., and continuing after concluding operations in the Persian Gulf.

“It’s always something you deal with, but never to this extent,” Clarke said. “Mitigation is a fact of flight operations and we did it during OIF, but never with this many aircraft. You block off altitude levels and it takes a lot of planning. But it’s something we’re used to doing.”

While unconventional, Clarke said these operations are worth doing because the pilots involved need to be ready to engage in similar operations if ever called upon to do so in a real-world environment.

“We’re working in open seas and collaborating with the Air Force at a high level,” Clarke added. “This kind of training is neat to do, and it’s the kind of mission we haven’t seen in a while. While we’re used to functioning with our air wing as one unit, now we’re working with three independent entities.”

The teamwork of CVW-11 has ramped up along with the pace and complexity of Valiant Shield as the exercise has progressed, according to Clarke.

“As a carrier and air wing team, Nimitz and CVW-11 are really showing what they can do in comparison with the other strike groups,” Clarke said.

He also pointed out the invaluable contributions of the enlisted members of VFA-41.

“They’re awesome,” Clarke said. “They work much longer hours than we [pilots] do. They’re constantly doing maintenance on the flight deck and in the hangar bay. They always keep our jets in top-notch condition, and if anything breaks, they’re Johnny-on-the-spot to fix it. We can’t fly without them.”

One of those Sailors, Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class (AW) Dan Hadsall, works with his crew in the squadron’s aviation technician shop to maintain the electronic equipment for the Super Hornets. They maintain all communications, navigation, electronic warfare and weapons systems for the jets.

“Everything that makes it an awesome jet, we maintain it,” Hadsall said. “We’ve got 12 birds, and we keep six to nine of them in the air at once. If one couldn’t go up when we need it to, it would be a massive hit, so we do the maintenance properly and make sure to not even have one tiny screw-up if we can help it.”

He said their job is especially critical during Valiant Shield due to the heavier schedule and the fact that more of those systems are being used during the exercise.

“We’re doing both fighter and tanker missions here and we’ve had more birds in the air at a time here than in the Gulf," said Hadsall. "It’s definitely a push and it’s exhausting. But our squadron always maintains a high standard. The Black Aces come out on top every time.”

While Clarke is participating in the joint exercise after only seven months as a Black Ace, Valiant Shield is a bit of a last hurrah for Hadsall. He is scheduled to leave the squadron later this month after the completion of the exercise.

Nimitz left its homeport of San Diego April 2 for a regularly-scheduled deployment and arrived in the U.S. 5th Fleet (C5F) area of operations in May. While operating in C5F, Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 11 flew more than 2,600 sorties and 7,332 hours in support of troops on the ground participating in OEF in Afghanistan and OIF in Iraq, before leaving the Persian Gulf in late July.

The squadrons of CVW-11 include the Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 14 “Tophatters,” VFA-41 “Black Aces,” VFA-81 “Sunliners,” Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 117 “Wallbangers,” Marine Corps Strike Fighter Squadron (VMFA) 232 “Red Devils,” Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 135 “Black Ravens,” Carrier Logistics Support Squadron (VRC) 30 “Providers,” and the Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron (HS) 6 “Indians.”

Nimitz CSG also includes embarked Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 23; guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton (CG 59); guided-missile destroyers USS John Paul Jones (DDG 53), USS Higgins (DDG 76), USS Chafee (DDG 90), and USS Pinckney (DDG 91); Helicopter Anti-submarine Squadron Light (HSL) 49 “Scorpions,” (HSL) 37 “Easy Riders”; and Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit 11, Det. 15.

“It’s crazy if you think about how big this exercise is – it’s a lot of aircraft and a lot of ships,” Hadsall said, “I haven’t really had a chance to think about it. I’m not sure if anybody else has either, but we get the job done. And as long as we all do that, we make a hell of a team.”

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