** Informational Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs presented in all parts of this article were taken at Naval Air Station Fallon (NAS Fallon – KNFL), Fallon, Nevada. **
— Part 1 of an article about NAS Fallon —
Some people say that if a person leaves Reno driving east, there won’t be much of anything to see until that person finally arrives in Salt Lake City after a long and tiring trip. But men and women around the globe with a love of military aircraft know better. They know that just 65 miles east of Reno is a place where many of the United States Navy’s huge fleet of aircraft pass through on a year-round and never-ending basis: Naval Air Station Fallon (NAS Fallon … KNFL), the home of the US Navy’s Naval Air Warfare Development Center (NAWDC) / Naval Strike & Air Warfare Center (NSAWC).
NAWDC / NSAWC conducts the US Navy’s Carrier Air Wing (CVG) training program, and … it is also the home of TOPGUN. With CVG-assigned F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets, E2 Hawkeyes, E/A-18 Growlers, MH-60 Seahawks, and a wide variety of other Navy aircraft arriving for, participating in, and departing after, NSAWC’s month-long training sessions; combined with NSAWC’s own “adversary” F-5 Tigers, F-16 Fighting Falcons, and F/A-18s; and with in-transit and sortie support aircraft such as C-40 Clippers, P-8 Poseidons, F21 Kfirs, P-3 Orions, etc., coming and going; the north and south parking ramps, and the helicopter and passenger terminal ramps at Hangar 7, are a military aviation photographer’s greatest dream come true. In fact, it just doesn’t get any better anywhere than it is at NFL.
Every US aircraft carrier has four multi-aircraft F/A-18 squadrons, either all-Navy or integrated Navy-US Marines, assigned to it. Each of the four F/A-18 squadrons consists of more than four aircraft so there are a minimum of sixteen Bugs and/or Superbugs on one carrier. The math is simple: nine active carriers* = 144+ Bugs and/or Superbugs … and their pilots will all receive their four-week Carrier Air Wing training at NFL. There are five CVG training sessions per year at Fallon, so there you have it. Within a two year time frame, all of the Navy’s carrier-assigned F/A-18 Hornet warbird squadrons must flock to Fallon for a 30 day training visit … and leading every four-aircraft squadron will be a squadron CAG bird.
* USS Abraham Lincoln CVN-72 is currently halfway thru its four-year RCOH and has no aircraft assigned at present. USS Gerald R. Ford CVN-78 will be commissioned next year.
The acronym “CAG” stands for “Commander, Air Group.” A “CAG” is the head of a Carrier Air Wing’s command staff. One aircraft in each warbird squadron in the several squadrons that make up a CVG is selected and assigned a MODEX number ending in Zero-Zero. The tail of that aircraft is painted with a distinctive design that depicts the squadron’s nickname and/or colors to distinguish that aircraft as the squadron’s lead aircraft. The aircraft is then referred to as the squadron’s “CAG bird.” In the photo above, the MODEX number of the Super Hornet is “200” as visible on the wing. That number distinguishes it as VFA-137’s CAG bird, so it is painted with a design of the squadron’s “Kestrel” nickname on the tail. The other Super Bugs in VFA-137’s squadron bear sequential MODEX numbers of “201,” “202,” “203,” “204,” etc. They also have Kestrel images on their tails, but instead of being in color, the image is in the standard low-contrast medium gray shade. No other part of the design, such as the red cheat and black paint seen on the Kestrels CAG bird above, appears on any of the other aircraft in the squadron.
The F/A-18 C Hornet seen here as it taxies out to runway 31L has a MODEX number of “300.” Here again, that number identifies it as the CAG bird of a Carrier Air Wing squadron. The excellent painting of a stinging bee on the tail depicts the nickname of VFA-113’s “Stingers.”
Regarding the MODEX number, the first number also has a purpose. The number “3” in the “3”00 MODEX number identifies VFA-117 as the third of the four F/A-18 Hornet squadrons assigned to the carrier USS Carl Vinson. Thus, the MODEX numbers of the other VFA-117 Bugs will also begin with a “3”: 301, 302, 303, … .
The letters on the tail also have meaning. The first letter, “N,” denotes an aircraft squadron assigned to the Pacific. So simply by looking at the first letter in the couplets, it can be seen that up to this point in my article, both aircraft I’ve shown you are assigned to the US Navy’s Pacific fleet area of operations.
Using the information I’ve given to this point, quiz yourself with the next picture. Scroll down slowly so the photo is visible but the caption is not. Which area does the aircraft operate in; the Pacific or the Atlantic?
The four Super Hornets of the VFA-143 “Pukin Dogs” ** are assigned to the USS Harry S. Truman, currently in the Atlantic Ocean operations area. The first letter on the tail code, “A,” indicates that the “Dogs” fly from a carrier operating in the Atlantic. Also, in this picture, note the other VFA-143 Super Bug in the background. It illustrates a point made earlier in this article: there is a “Pukin Dog” on the tail of that F/A-18 but it is painted in low-contrast gray.
** The official designation of VFA-143 is “STRKFITRON 143.” The letter “V” in the code indicates that the aircraft in VFA-143 are “fixed wing.” The initials “FA” in the squadron’s identification code ID the squadron as a “Strike Fighter Squadron” so VFA-143 is “fixed wing Striker Fighter Squadron one-four-tree.”
Photo captures of CAG bird aircraft are eagerly sought by aviation photographers. And because all Carrier Air Wing training is conducted by NSAWC for all carrier-assigned squadrons, NAS Fallon is a fabulous location to find and photograph them.
F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet squadrons are not the only squadrons to proudly display their nicknames / colors on one of their aircraft so these are not the only CAG birds that can be seen at NAS Fallon. As I stated at the start of this article, there are other types of aircraft on each US Navy carrier. There can be as many as ten Sikorsky MH-60 Seahawk helicopters assigned to a CVG. Although not all of a helicopter squadron’s Seahawks are actually on the carrier (some are on other naval vessels sailing with the carrier), the squadron has a nickname and a specially-painted CAG bird and because the squadron is part of a Carrier Air Wing, it comes to KNFL to participate in the CVG training conducted by NSAWC.
It dazzles the mind to think that a US aircraft carrier can have sixteen Horner/Super Hornet aircraft and as many as ten Seahawk helicopters on it. So it is even MORE dazzling to the mind to realize that there are also four E-2 Hawkeyes, five EA-18G Growlers, and a pair of C-2 Providers “on board” a carrier too. That’s three more aircraft squadrons (a four-plane Hawkeye squadron, a five-plane Growler squadron, and a two-plane Provider squadron), and that means … there are three more CAG birds to see and to snap when they visit NAS Fallon for CVG training.
Speaking of the EA-18G Growlers brings to mind the fact that, as of this month (July, 2015), the last “active duty” EA-6B Prowler in the US Navy’s aircraft inventory completed it final sortie. Just fifteen days ago, VAQ-134’s very last squadron Prowler was replaced by an E/A-18G Growler. Navy squadrons VAQ-134 “Garudas” and VAQ-142 “Gray Wolves” were the final two squadrons to fly the Prowler. So of all the CAG bird pictures I’ve been able to click over the past several years, the following two photos of the VAQ-142 “Gray Wolves” CAG bird arriving at KNFL back in 2013 are two of the most special pics in my collection. Have a look and enjoy scenes that will never be seen again ….
Each carrier in the United States Navy has at least eight warbird squadrons assigned. So with nine US carrier groups presently plying the oceans of the world, there are more than 72 military metalbird squadrons currently assigned to Navy Carrier Air Wings. Each has its own special-paint CAG bird. If you wish to see more of them, check back to this Planeviz blogsite soon for Part Two of this post. Until then, I leave you with this shot to “tide you over” til next time.
And to all who have served or who are serving, walk tall. You are the people who have stood up in the past, and who are standing up now, for our country. This country owes you … big time plus. Thank You. (Thumbs Up)
Gary C. Schenauer (“Reno Gary”), MSgt (Ret), USAF
* * * * Photos in this article would not have been possible without the access to KNFL arranged by Mr. Zip Upham, United States Navy Public Affairs Officer, NAS Fallon, over the last three years. The phrase “Thank You” cannot even remotely begin to express the gratitude I feel to “Zip” for making these wonderful photo opportunities happen for me. * * * *