GREGG K. KAKESAKO / GKAKESAKO@STARBULLETIN.COM
One of eight F-18 Hornets prepared to land Friday at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe for a three-week stay in the islands to practice dogfighting with F-15 Eagles belonging to the Hawaii Air Guard's 199th Fighter Squadron.
Isle Navy and Air Guard jets engage in mock air battles
Beginning Thursday, the Navy's newest F-18 Super Hornets will be locked in mock aerial combat with the F-15 Eagle jets off Hawaii.
Up to 12 aircraft -- six from the Navy's Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Nine and an equal number from the Hawaii Air Guard's 199th Fighter Squadron -- will spend the next three weeks testing each other.
Maj. Michael "Stuck" Blake, chief of wing weapons and tactics for the 199th Squadron, said although both the F-18 and the F-15 were built by same manufacturer, their capabilities are different -- the Super Hornet is an air-to-ground fighter that can drop bombs, while the F-15 Eagle mainly is an aerial fighter.
Blake said the joint mission gives the Hawaii Air National Guard pilots the chance to fly against an aircraft other than an F-15.
"We've flown against F-18s during RIMPAC and exercises on the mainland," said Blake who has been flying the F-15 for nearly 11 years.
But the next three weeks will give Hawaii Air Guard pilots a lot of time to concentrate all of their flying skills.
Navy Lt. Aaron "Vern" Vernallis, the Navy squadron's operations test director, said, "The 199th has a very good reputation as an aggressor.
"We will be flying one-to-one dog fights," Vernallis told reporters at the Kaneohe Bay's Marine Corps flight line minutes after eight of his F-18 Hornets landed on Friday.
"We also will be flying exercises where there will be four of our jets against six of theirs."
Air Force Lt. Col. Rick "Wyatt" Silong, who heads the Navy squadron's F-18 special program, said their job is to test the newest aircraft, radar, and weapons systems that the Navy has to offer before they are made available to squadrons flying off aircraft carriers.
"We evaluate all the weapons, software and hardware and make sure they are ready to go before we give them to the fleet," Silong added.
Vernallis said the aerial exercise will take place in the air space in and around the islands of Hawaii, specifically at Barking Sands Pacific Missile Range Facility north of Kauai.
Navy Lt. Scott Hill, a maintenance officer for the Navy squadron, said the deployment presented some unique challenges.
"Our biggest challenge is the logistics involved ... to get eight airplanes, all the tools, and all the supplies involved across the Pacific," he said.
The detachment is based in Southern California's Mojave Desert at Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake.
Silong said that besides the eight Super Hornets, 120 detachment members were flown to Kaneohe Bay to support the mission.
Blake said that two mock combat exercises will be held each day followed by briefing sessions at Hickam Air Force Base where the pilots will review videotapes of the "dogfights" and compare aerial tactics.
Vernallis said the pilots will try to minimize jet noise by staying away from land and cutting back on the power when landing.
The joint flight operations will end Feb. 20.
Blake said that seven of the 199th's 20 F-15s are still grounded awaiting clearance by the Air Force to return to duty. The Air Force's F-15 fleet were grounded following the Nov. 2 crash of a Missouri Air National Guard F-15. An Air Force investigation found a flaw in the metal rails that hold the fuselage together.
Six F-16 Fighting Falcons from the Minnesota Air National Guard replaced the grounded F-15s at Hickam. The jets returned to Minnesota on Friday.
The Hawaii Air National Guard will begin replacing its fleet of F-15s with the next generation F-22 Raptors in late 2010.