A hush will fall over Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base Saturday, Jan. 17, 2015, when 14 Navy Hornets and Super Hornets take off for a final time.
Flying the F-18 aircraft will be Navy pilots who just finished two weeks of daily exercises at the Avon Park Air Force Range. The Navy contingent from Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia includes 14 pilots in training, 22 instructors and 150 maintainers - or maintenance crew.
Navy Lt. Nate Miller said MacDill and the nearby bombing range are ideal for the 14 pilots he’s in charge of.
“We’re basically here to train the new, F-18 pilots who are going to go out in the fleet in the next probably about five to six months,” Miller said.
The 31-year-old pilot has done three deployments to Afghanistan, the Navy calls them sea tours, where he provided combat air support. Miller says all of their instructors have combat experience.
“So we are teaching low altitude tactics: how to fly basically between 200 and 500 feet for different ingress and egress out of a target area,” Miller said. “We’re working close air support.”
What MacDill’s airfield cannot offer the trainees is experience landing the F-18 on an aircraft carrier bobbing in the ocean which Miller called stressful but very rewardin.
On the MacDill flight line under gray, rainy, blustery skies, dozens of support personnel buzzed around the F-18 jets. Some huddled under the folded wings of the F-18. Others warmed themselves – at a distance – in the jet-wash of the jet engines.
Jessica Clayton is holds the rank of AM3 which stands for Airframe Structural Mechanic 3rd Class. She’s a native of Land O Lakes and was disappointed with the 50 degree weather.
“I was ready to be sporting my flip flops and shorts coming from Virginia but not this time,” Clayton said.
She loves doing maintenance.
“As somebody who is 20 years old without a college degree, I feel like it’s a good way to put your foot in the world and shows that you can still make something out of yourself and contribute to society,” Clayton said.
It’ll be several more months before pilot trainee, Lt. Nick Adams is assigned to a ship. He and Navy instructor Lt. Kevin Loughmiller had just returned from a flight over Avon Park Air Force Range.
“Strictly a training mission for him practicing laser guided weapons,” Loughmiller said.
A few days earlier, Adams was practicing close air support at Avon Park which meant flying at 200 feet.
“It’s pretty mind blowing,” Adams said. “Really up at altitude when you’re fast you don’t’ have the ground rush, but the lower you get the faster stuff gets moving. “
Once the 14 navy pilots have completed all their training, Lt. Miller said the aviators face one last challenge.
“At the very end, they’ll do 16 arrested landings on an aircraft carrier and then we say ‘Okay, you guys are ready to go out and be naval aviators,’” Miller said.