For nearly twenty years the F-5 Tigers of VFC-13 have roamed the skies over northern Nevada.
Frank Visser visited Naval Air Station Fallon to look back with the squadron’s Commanding Officer, CDR Wayne “Otter” Oetinger, on what has been a busy year for the “Fighting Saints”.
The start of what is now known as Fighter Squadron Composite THIRTEEN (VFC-13) goes back to 1946 when VF-753 flew the F6F-5 “Hellcats”. The contours of the present-day VFC-13 became clear on 1 September 1973 when Fleet Composite Squadron 13 (VC-13), called the “Saints”, was founded at Naval Air Station (NAS) in New Orleans, Louisiana, due to a reorganization within the U.S. Naval Reserve. The first seven months the “Saints” flew the Vought F-8H “ Crusader” to exchange it then for the Douglas A-4L “Skyhawk”. As there was increasing demand for support missions of Navy and Marine units based on the West coast, the move to NAS Miramar in California took place in February 1976. In 1993, after having flown the “Skyhawk” for almost twenty years, they switched to the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A/B “Hornet” for only a brief period of three years when the “Hornets” were replaced by the Northrop F-5E and F “Tiger II”. Since NAS Miramar was realigned as a Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS), VFC-13 left its home base and touched down at NAS Fallon, Nevada in 1996. When in 2003 most of the F-5Es had ample flying hours, the U.S. government reached an agreement with the Swiss government to purchase 32 Swiss Air Force F-5Es for the amount of $18,558,000. The 32 delivered F-5Es were reserved for VFC-13 and VFMT-401 at MCAS Yuma and were renamed the F-5N. Sometime later, three single seat F-5Es were rebuilt to twin seat F-5Fs, which were affectionately referred to as “Franken Tigers” by the squadron pilots.
VFC-13 has one F-5F in its inventory. This former Swiss Air Force F-5E (serial J-3055) was rebuild to become a twin-seater F-5F and are called “Franken Tiger”.
The F-5Ns of VFC-111 based at NAS Key West Florida distinguish from the VFC-13 by useing a three digit code instead of a two digit one. Beside that nearly every aircraft has a sharkmouth and the “Sundowners” markings on the tail.
In January 2006 a section of VFC-13 descended on NAS Key West in Florida and set up a permanent detachment to take up the east coast training together with the F/A-18s of VFC-12. During the fall of 2006, this detachment became a stand-alone squadron, and took on the name of VFC-111 “Sundowners”. Today VFC-13 has fourteen aircraft in its inventory, which include 13 F-5Ns and one F-5F. VFC-111 has a complement of 18 aircraft, including 17 F-5Ns and one F-5F for air-to-air training use out of NAS Key West, Florida.
Support of the Carrier Air Wing (CVW)
For decades, VFC-13 has provided adversary training for individual Navy and Marine Corps Active and Reserve Fleet and replacement squadrons, as well as Carrier Air Wings (CVW) and other customers USAF/Air National Guard. The 25 pilots within the squadron include twelve “full-timers” and thirteen “part-timers” or Selected Reservist (SELRES) pilots. Full-time pilots are typically assigned to the squadron for about three years whereas the part-time reserve pilots serve between eight to 12 years. At the time of this visit, there was even a part-time pilot of VFC-13 with a nineteen-year flying history at the squadron. Most pilots have significant experience in the F/A-18, and some from the F-14. After entry to the squadron, all pilots F-5, which includes an abbreviated ground school and Familiarization syllabus. This typically takes two to four months based on the pilot’s availability, weather and aircraft maintenance. Part-time pilots also have civilian jobs, and many are airline pilots. When the transition phase has been completed, the tactical portion of the training begins, with this part taking three to six months for most pilots, again depending on the aircrew’s availability and experience.
CDR Wayne “Otter” Oetinger: “What makes the squadron special is that all of the maintenance efforts are carried out by about a hundred highly-skilled contract maintainers. Our outstanding aircraft availability has been a tremendous key to success in supporting a robust training calendar throughout 2014.” The most important task of VFC-13 is to train the CVWs which go on detachment to NAS Fallon during their work-up cycle prior to deployment. Usually these events take place three times a year, with a different Air Wing each time. Preceding this four-week training of a complete Air Wing is the Strike Fighter Advanced Readiness Program (SFARP).
During four weeks, VFC-13 provides air-to-air training support for numerous F/A-18 aircrews. In 2014 alone, VFC-13 supported four SFARPs. After completing SFARP, a four-week Air Wing detachment takes place at NAS Fallon a few months later in training cycle. CDR Wayne “Otter” Oetinger commented: “During the four weeks during Air Wing Fallon detachments, the training scenarios become more and more complex with an increasing number of aircraft during each event. The visiting squadrons effectively crawl, walk and then run in training complexity and level of performance.” In the last week, wartime scenarios are staged with as many as 24 to 30 aircraft from the Air Wing.
The F-5s of VFC-13 together with NSAWC F-16s, F/A-18s and ATAC Kfirs comprise the aggressor force.
Sixteen or more of these aggressor aircraft are airborne and provide opposition for the Air Wing assets. NAS Fallon is the ideal location for hosting this sort of training. The weather conditions are usually quite good throughout the year, and there is excellent airspace and target sets, which resemble many current day theaters of operation. The entire area is referred to as the Fallon Range Training Complex (FRTC), and is over 10,200 square miles (26,000 km2) situated east of NAS Fallon. It includes a vast array of electronic systems supporting squadron, CVWs and other training elements.
For GPS tracking, aircraft carry the ACMI P5 pod, and aggressor aircraft sometimes also carry various jamming pods. After four challenging weeks of Air Wing detachment, the CVW typically spends one more at-sea period on board the carrier, to continue to practice missions while underway. In 2014, VFC-13 supported these missions off the carrier as well by sending a detachment to NAS North Island in San Diego, California for four weeks, and then a second detachment in support of Marine F/A-18s o stationed at MCAS Miramar. Each detachment consisted of six F-5s, with twelve pilots, a shore-based controller and twenty-four maintainers. Following this last at-sea period, the carrier strike group typically deploys and proceeds to its assigned theater.
With such a busy program last year and a full schedule for 2015, there remain many challenges for VFC-13. CDR Wayne “Otter” Oetinger put it this way: “Some of the biggest challenges are maintenance, flight hour funding and aircraft upgrades for future support requirements. The continued squadron commitments will only increase these challenges in the years ahead.” CDR Wayne “Otter” Oetinger values the cooperation with VFC-111 at NAS Key West and their F/A-18 counterparts VFC-12 at NAS Oceana, VA and VFA-204 at NAS New Orleans, LA. “We work together often between our aggressor squadrons, and in addition, we also exchange pilots between VFC-13 and VFC-111.” Though all the Swiss Air Force F-5s had acquired relatively few flying hours when they arrived at NAS Fallon they are still old aircraft. Due to the current fiscal climate and other programmatic challenges, aircraft upgrades remain an uncertainty as the aircraft approaches sundown in 2025.