Air boss focusing on training, safety and new tech

By Meghann Myers, Staff writer

NAVAL AIR STATION NORTH ISLAND, CALIF. — It falls to the new air boss to manage an aviation fleet that is sundowning old platforms, and developing and fielding new platforms, from the stealth fighter to the next-generation aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford, all while balancing training and deployment schedules.

Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, a career pilot who took the helm of Naval Air Forces on Jan. 22, sat down with Navy Times Feb. 26 to talk about the aviation force. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity.

Q. How will the F-35’s capabilities mix in with the carrier wing?

A. You cannot have all high-tech stuff. But if you mix the two — the JSF and Super Hornet — together with some of the other capabilities, with E-2D [Advanced Hawkeye], some of the things that our surface ships are bringing in terms of an ability to integrate everybody in a tactical network, the [F-35C] Lightning II will be one of the most critical [tools]we’ll have, and we would like to get that as soon as we can in the fleet.

Q. The chief of naval operations said recently he thought stealth might be overrated in future fighter jets. Do you agree?

A. There is a place for stealth and I think it gives you some capabilities to operate in environments. And I think his point was, there’s some things that future adversaries coming up ways to maybe detect stealth. Well, if you combine stealth with some of our other platforms like the [EA-18G] Growler in particular and if you look back in our history there is not many of what we call stealth platforms that would go anywhere unaccompanied. We provide an advanced airborne electronic attack in almost every case. Because we look at contingency ops and things like that.

Q. What’s the plan for the new carrier onboard delivery aircraft?

A. We are working through that right now. We will introduce the new [V-22] Ospreys into the fleet around the turn of the [decade] , right around 2020 or so, and they will replace our old [C-2A] Greyhound community. Now our intention is to keep that mission. It will be those Navy pilots who are very experienced at that kind of global logistics mission. They have that down and we want to keep that expertise. So those pilots will transition. We will figure out how that will work right now.

Obviously, we will piggyback initially, on the Marines and their training program with Osprey and then look to branch out from there. But we will man those detachments, very similar concept as we do right now with the CODs and we have two main squads that we send detachments for on each of the air wings from there. It will be a Navy mission … but I think there will be some synergies between the two, learning from what the Marines have done with Osprey right now.

Q. Some are skeptical about the Navy’s decision to shutter two special operations support squadrons that fly the HH-60 helicopter. How are you dealing with that?

A.So there is a little bit of the outfitting of the helo itself, but more importantly, it is the experience of the guys that are doing it. They’re combined active and Reserve crews that have been doing this for years, and so there is a relationship with the special operations forces, primarily Navy SEALs, that has developed. And then when they go forward they are focused just on that mission.

So that experience level, and trying to somehow harness those folks, and we are looking at ways to do that, where we integrate them in with other squadrons, whether they be reserve, active or augment our fleet training squadrons in some fashion so we can keep those folks around, so that when called from a fleet squadron we can augment with some of that experience. Then again, we have to probably put a little bit more emphasis on that SOF integration training.n terms of what the [H-60] Sierra community does, that is not the biggest chunk of the training. We have to expand that a little bit, but I think we can get there.

Q. Have you seen any positive changes from restructuring the Blue Angels last year, to include having an executive officer?

A.First off I will tell you that [Capt.] Tom Frosch, the new boss, he put some things in place as soon as he took over. Before ever hearing about this. So he was exactly the right guy in command of the Blues and has been instrumental in moving through this process with the team. The XO position is a good thing. No flying duties but he rounds out the leadership triad that we did not have in the Blues, that we have in every other command. So CO, XO and CMC. It gives the boss a sounding board now. Someone more like a peer. So I think that is a good thing. We have oversight of both the officer, the pilot hiring process and the boss hiring process.

Q. And they have their first female aviator on board now, Marine C-130 pilot Capt. Katie Higgins. Is a female F/A-18 pilot next?

A. I think we have always looked across the talent pool as we hire for the Blue Angels and took females in the past as well. So I have flown with many women aviators who I thought would have been great initial Blue Angels or the first ones to do that. We will have one eventually. So I do not think the procedures we put in place or the things we learn from this investigation will change that or speed that up because we were on a path to do that anyway with the quality of our female aviators out there, certainly in the VFA community, I think we will eventually get to that point.

Q. What other priorities are on your list?

A.You look back at last year’s safety record not the best we have had in fiscal year ’14 and have taken some initial looks inside the higher risk communities: VFA, HSC and our VAQ, to pull from what we learned last year. So far we are doing well this year. But I think we have got — there is awareness in the fleet primarily of some of the challenges of the fleet readiness model, that training model. I know that there are times when you are going to be less proficient and less current and applying the right risk management tools during those phases. Not to mention it is not important as you are getting very busy working up and on deployment it still applies there but I think just an awareness of that as we move through the next couple of years or certainly this year from a safety perspective.

Bottom line is that we talked a lot about the airplanes and the programs and everything else, but it is really the sailors that I worry about, and ensuring they’ve got the resources they need. Because these kids will do anything. They work incredible hours and I think for the most part really love what they are doing. So I just want to give them the tools they need, the training, the airplanes, the parts so that when we ask them, their squadrons to go forward that they can focus on that war fighting first and be ready to operate wherever we ask them. And if we ask them to sail into or fly in harm’s way that they are ready to be successful.

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