Bogey F/A-18 Hornet squadron faces uncertain future

By Naveed Jamali, Special contributor to Military Times

NAVAL AIR STATION OCEANA, Va. — Fighter Squadron Composite 12’s F/A-18 Hornets sport one of the Navy’s coolest paint jobs. The fuselage is camouflaged in white, gray and black splotches, with red stars on the fighters’ wings and twin tails. These aren’t your regular F/A-18s.

“I thought it was sexy as hell!” said Master Chief Avionics Technician Anthony Macdonell on seeing the splinter camouflage of the squadron’s Hornets for the first time. The paint scheme is made to mock up a Russian SU-35 fighter, one of the potential adversaries that U.S. Navy pilots may face.

The squadron’s mission is as unique as its fighters. VFC-12, callsign “Ambush,” is one of the Navy Reserve’s three tactical Hornet squadrons, whose foremost mission is not unlike Viper in the movie “Top Gun,” flying missions as adversaries like Russian bogeys to train Navy pilots readying for deployment. It is a critical mission flown by some of the fleet’s oldest jets, and there are signals that the squadron’s funding could be drying up.

It takes a certain breed to be a fighter pilot at this squadron, which is a mix of active-duty and reservists. These aviators are hand-picked for their flying credentials and personality, in order that they’ll fit into the tight-knit squadron.

“I think if you took any ready-room in the fleet and compared it to ours, you’d find we have way more experience,” said Cmdr. Dan Smelik, a selected reservist with the squadron who is a civilian pilot for FedEx. He’s flown with Ambush for seven years.

Smelik, callsign “Smelikat,” has nearly 3,000 hours in the F/A-18 and is a seasoned flier at a squadron known for them. VFC-12 often relies on reservists who fly drill weekends and attracts graduates of the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School, a.k.a. Top Gun;  SELRES who haven’t gone are routinely sent.

VFC-12 is all about flying. Smelik has been able to fly 21 out of his 22 years in the Navy and continues to fly fighters as a senior officer, which is uncommon. He says the “camaraderie and challenge” keep him going, adding that “the philosophy here is, this is cool.”

In mid-October, the squadron was setting up for some training after a trip to Fallon, Nevada. Out back on the ramp, four jets were parked in a row, their camouflage standing out from the gray Super Hornets taxiing beyond, splinter camouflage standing out against the haze gray Super Hornets taxing behind them.

These VFC-12 jets have served as warhorses for decades. All of them are F/A-18 A-C Hornets, often known as legacy planes, that are nearing the end of their projected lifespan. Some planes are close to 8,000 hours, beyond their original service life. Those have been extended via upkeep. Keeping these birds flying is a big part of the squadron’s mission and often involves taking them down for maintenance; four Hornets are typically ready to fly of the 10 the squadron owns. The pilots and maintainers love the older birds, some even saying that the F/A-18A+ model is more snappy then its F/A-18E Super Hornet cousin.

“I really wanted to get into the F/A-18 community…and there is tons of opportunity for SELRES to come drill with us,” said Senior Chief Aviation Ordnanceman Daniel Sevigny, one of the many Full-Time Support sailors maintainers who keep these jets flying sophisticated missions.

Sevigny said the squadron offers reservists the chance to earn qualifications and work with regular active-duty sailors and aviators at NAS Oceana.  During its heyday the Reserve Air community boasted two carrier air wings on both coasts. Now it has a handful of squadrons and airplanes. Because of the rarity of tactical jets in the Navy Reserve, a sense of prestige and pride comes with wearing the VFC-12 patch.

“Every time I man up I get, ‘Go get ‘em, sir!’ and when I get back, ‘Did you kick their butt!?’ ” said Cmdr. Steven Young, the commanding officer of VFC-12.

The competitive and adversarial theme pervades the squadron, from the red stars on the jets to the “MiG Alley” sign in the ready room.Young tolerates brashness from Ambush pilots.

“We take ourselves pretty serious in this adversary role, in fact I have guys who want to wear old Soviet uniforms.”

Asked to sum up the capabilities of his pilots, Young said  “you’d have to go look at the Blue Angels to see if they got better folks.”

But for all fighter pilot bravado, the future of VFC-12 is not so certain. Other squadrons fly legacy Hornets, but Young said “we have the oldest jets, most of these jets came off the line in 1983 or 1984.”

Extending the life or replacing the legacy Hornets has been a constant discussion point. The service is extending some planes through extensive maintenance. However, officials are also moving to replace these older Hornets at NAS Oceana and it is not clear what will happen to the squadron’s F/A-18s. The aviation Navy is eyeing some simulations to boost pilots’ training.

Young said “the Air Boss told me specifically, ‘We appreciate the value you bring to our deployment cycle, but finding it to be affordable is getting harder and harder to do.’ ”

Young thinks “they’ll probably be some crazy-ish concepts that come across like blending sims with actual flight time.” In the meantime, Ambush pilots will keep fleet fliers at the edge of their seats.

Naveed Jamali, a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve, is the author of the memoir, “How to Catch a Russia Spy.”

Back to Top