Carrier Air Wing 7 Returns Home To Virginia Beach


VIRGINIA BEACH –Like the deployment they completed Tuesday, the fighter jets of Carrier Air Wing 7 got thrown off their timetable when they had to fly around out at sea before they could splash down during a rain-soaked homecoming at Oceana Naval Air Station.

But the downpour and the delay couldn’t dampen the anticipation of families who waited at the hangar – kids splashing in puddles and twirling in the rain – to welcome home their fliers.

It was a long, complicated 313-day split cruise aboard the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower. After an unscheduled return to Norfolk at Christmastime, the air wing had to turn around and deploy again in February.

And for Strike Fighter Squadron 103, known as the Jolly Rogers, the homecoming was tinged with the sobering emotions of a close call, after two pilots ejected from a malfunctioning jet in April and had to be plucked from the Persian Gulf.

Also awaiting them on the tarmac: budget cuts that will ground them for the next month and cut back their flight training through the summer.

As spouses waited, some noted how this particular deployment pulled at their heartstrings time and time again – how it might have changed them even more than it changed the aviators they were welcoming home.

“You have to grow up and be tough quickly,” said Nicole Brown, whose husband, Russell, pilots one of the squadron’s 12 F/A-18 Super Hornets. “You have to be really flexible, and at the same time you have to stay strong for your spouse. It’s a rude awakening.”

Brown and her friend Amanda Rupe, whose husband, Patrick, is a back-seater with the Jolly Rogers, went through not one but two crash scares with their husbands.

Both men were in a training unit in Virginia Beach when an F/A-18 Hornet from their squadron crashed into an apartment building in April 2012. Miraculously, no one was hurt.

Brown recalled a frantic few minutes trying to reach her husband by phone that day when she learned of the crash on the news. And while the Jolly Rogers command contacted spouses immediately after the crash off the Eisenhower, letting them know that their aviators were safe, it still drove home the perils of what they do.

“There’s some anxiety every time we lose an aircraft, but it’s reassured by the fact that we fly all the time,” said Capt. Terry Morris, commander of Carrier Air Wing 7. “This air wing flew more than 30,000 flight hours during this deployment and… made about 14,600 arrested landings. So the mishap that occurred – we consider it a one-off, a unique circumstance for which we’ve done everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The Eisenhower originally deployed in June 2012 and was slated to be gone until February. But maintenance issues aboard another carrier led the Ike to return in December for deck resurfacing and to redeploy in late February.

During the second half of their cruise, the 57 Virginia Beach-based aircraft completed more than 5,200 sorties and carrier-arrested landings and flew more than 13,000 hours.

Because of sequestration budget cuts, Morris said, the air wing will stand down completely over the next month and then spend two more months in what is called “tactical hard deck,” in which each crew will get 11 hours a month of flight training, as opposed to the average 26 hours.

That’s considered just enough for the crews to maintain “minimum proficiency” and will save the Navy $14 million, he said.

On Tuesday, the rain came in waves, and the pilots took advantage of a break to land. Children ran out, splashing through the puddles to greet their dads.

Coming off back-to-back deployments,

the aviators will now have time to get to know their growing children and their spouses who have learned to do so much more on their own.

Lesley Miller had twin boys seven weeks before her husband, Lt. Nate Miller, deployed. At first, it was tough adjusting to caring for the double load on her own.

When her husband came home in December, she had to get used to having him around again, only for him to redeploy in February.

“I’ve pretty much learned I can do anything,” Miller said. “I think I’ve gotten a lot stronger and a lot more independent.”

When a co-worker called her on the day of the crash off the Eisenhower to ask whether she’d heard from Nate, Lesley said she went numb. His command hadn’t called her yet.

She tries not to think about what that could have meant. And what she takes away from being a single mom to twins with a pilot husband at sea: “I always end my emails with, ‘I love you,’“ she said, tearing up.

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