Lucky travelers driving down Whidbey Island’s Highway 20 are treated to impromptu air shows almost daily. Navy Growlers, the sharp-nosed jets that are the Navy’s answer to increasingly technological-driven warfare, seemingly defy gravity in 90-degree turns. Four-engine turboprop P-3 air-craft soar steadily overhead on surveillance training missions, and the occasional search-and-rescue heli-copter practices operations while pausing over the coastline. They all belong to Naval Air Station (NAS) Whidbey Island, a base landmarked on Highway 20 with two static displays of the Navy’s Prowler and Intruder jets.
Since 1942, Naval Air Station (NAS) Whidbey Island has played an important role in the nation’s defense effort. It has sent personnel to every sig-nificant military operation in the modern era, most recently in support of operations in the Middle East and the geopolitically significant Exercise Vigilant Ace—U.S. exercises with South Korean military to ensure familiarity between the military operations of both countries.
During the 2005 process where numerous bases where either closed or combined, NAS Whidbey Island was rated as having the highest value of all the examined Pacific bases.
About 7,000 uniformed men and women are sta-tioned here. The base also employs about 2,400 civil-ians and currently supports operations for six types of aircraft. There are 15 Naval squadrons of elec-tronic warfare personnel with colorful names like the Scorpions, the Wizards and the Gray Wolves. NAS Whidbey Island includes military housing, air-craft maintenance facilities and, of course, two huge runways. This is also the base that made headlines last year when a spirited pilot used his jet’s contrails, the condensed water streaming from behind the engines, to draw a huge penis in the sky over Eastern Washington.
It is a place where few civilians know what goes on past the base’s highly fortified security check points. It is also the source of enormous pride from residents, as well as its share of noise complaints from the deafening jets overhead.
In late spring, we decided to take a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on here. To do that, we followed a squadron, the Garudas, as they went about their day-to-day tasks. We also sat down with Captain Geoffrey Moore, commander of NAS Whidbey Island since February 2016, to gain an understanding of the work being done on the base and its role within the community.
World Famous Garudas
A Day in the Life of a Navy Growler Squadron
A group of people on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island walk around wearing flight suits with patches showing a maroon-colored triangular bird. You’ll find the same abstract bird on plaques, printed at the top of official memos, and, of course, painted on their jets. The mascot, a Garuda, is a mythical Hindu bird who carried Vishnu, the god of war, wherever his presence was needed to protect creation from destructive evil forces.
For this particular squadron, Electronic Attack Squadron VAQ-134, their mascot may be a powerful bird, but the vehicle of choice is an EA-18G Growler jet.
It’s not just pilots and mechanics that make the squadron fly. Its five jets are operated and maintained by multiple shops of about 200 military members. Structural mechanics ensure the oxygen delivery systems work properly. Electricians and avionics technicians deal with the complicated circuitry, while maintenance administration tracks the actions required to keep the fleet healthy. The administrative office files travel orders for the constantly traveling unit. Quality assurance oversees standardization and safety, while the information technology (IT) shop ensures connectivity and Microsoft Office licenses are up to date. There are 28 pilots and electronic warfare officers (EWOs, also known as the “back seaters”) who fulfill about 500 flying hours quarterly in addition to juggling related duties.
In order to be successful in this world you need excellent time management skills, flexibility, and the ability to adapt quickly. As hectic—or as boring—as the days get, they are all proud to serve. Ask any of the shops who the most critical to the mission is, and they’ll claim it’s their shop. And they’d all be correct.
While the maintenance day shift sailors welcome the day with unit PT (physical training) at the base gym, lieutenant Michael Fessenden flips on the office lights of the Ready Room, a com-bination check-in/break room/meeting space for officers. He moves to an adjacent office to begin his day. As more Garudas trickle in, the quiet gives way to pleasantries, a coffee pot’s gurgle, and popping of the squadron’s popcorn machine. It’s a quick, healthy snack for when there’s just no time to eat a meal.
Supply’s Brittany Roes arrives at her desk and gets ready for the day. She reviews a stack of fuel chits, a bit like jet gas receipts, and checks on orders for tools and parts other shops need. She’s good at her job, but after serving almost five years, like many she’s facing the decision whether to stay in the military or change careers.
Next door to supply, Dominick Scordo and his fellow Plane Captains get ready to prep the jets for departure an hour prior to take-off. The team jokes around in their office, but they put their game faces on when it’s time to fire up the engines.
Upstairs, two crews “brief”—going over their mission and the tactics they’ll be using—in the squadron’s vault, or classified space, for their 10:45 a.m. flight. On days they fly, aviators will be occupied for about six hours, possibly eight, if someone is working on a qualification, which means they’re trying to get qualified for the next level of certification.
During these special flights, seemingly minuscule details are pored over. It’s the type of attention to detail that makes the U.S.’s military aviators the best in the world. However, it can be a mentally draining and physically taxing day.
A jet needs an inspection, meaning the airframes shop needs to remove its panels. It’s a day-long process that includes labeling every panel and fastener. Fresh from training and eager to learn, new arrival Samuel Juarez Hernandez is spending a lot of time shadowing the more-experienced sailors, watching rather than doing, but that doesn’t dampen his excitement. “Back home, you do a lot for yourself, but here you have a bigger purpose,” he says.
The Squadron Duty Officer (SDO) mans the squadron’s main desk, located in the Ready Room. He is the squadron’s first and last point of contact, and, if required, works through emergency procedures with aircrew in the cockpits. The phone rings. “World famous Garudas, how can I help you?”
At 1334 the Paraloft’s speakers blast dance music to energize a crew getting dressed. The shop used to be known as the parachute riggers, a name still given to the enlisted sailors (Navy terms are used here) who operate the shop. The aircrews pull on their harnesses and G-suits over their flight suits. G-suits, or, more accurately, anti-G suits, look like tight-fitting, high-waisted pants with hoses interwoven through the material. It helps crews deal with the physical pressure when taking turns at an accelerated speed. Think of the weight you can feel while tak-ing a sharp turn on a roller coaster. Then multiply that pressure.
When “pulling Gs,” (one G is the force of gravity you feel now; pilots typically feel four), aircrew are subject to hypoxia from blood being pulled away from the brain and pooling in the lower limbs. When the jet pulls Gs, the G-suits automatically pressurize, keeping the blood circulating and preventing aircrew from losing consciousness.
Juilio Gonzalez stands ready to help with last-minute adjustments. The aviators rely on his expertise for comfort in the jet, as lieutenant Bo Jaffer knows firsthand.“If there’s some-thing uncomfortable, that’s all you’ll think about.” It could be something as simple as moving a flashlight from one pocket to another, but it makes a world of difference when lapsed concentration could mean life or death.
Down in the ordnance shop, Pernell Washington prepares to arm the jets. He needs just 10 minutes to load up jamming pods for today’s training mission. Since the purpose of the Growler is electronic attack, the jamming pods are central to most flights. They contain the radar and electronics the EWOs use to identify and block adversary signals.
Three flyers, having started their brief at 1145, are finishing up their simulator training. The squadron uses simulators to train on emergency procedures that otherwise would be dangerous to practice in the jets.
It’s 1420, five minutes past the scheduled take-off time for the day’s second flight. The two-ship is still on the ground watching a thick fog roll onto the end of the runway. They don’t have the mini-mum weather requirements both pilots need to safely take off. The last flight is canceled and the day’s tempo finally slows.
Back in the Ready Room the SDO ends his shift and begins to empty the coffee pot and trash cans. Ohio native and lieutenant Brennon Apsey leads a Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) meeting. Apsey reminds everyone this year’s Christmas party needs to make up for last year’s Christmas, when the squadron was overseas on a six-month deployment in Japan, Guam and South Korea. The charismatic officer never imagined himself in a flight suit, let alone piloting a Growler. “If you told me I’d be doing this in high school, I would’ve laughed…So would have everyone else.”
Upstairs, it’s quiet except for the occasional mouse-clicking and chair-squeak of those whose to-do lists never seem to shorten. As exciting as life in a Navy aviation squadron seems, there’s a lot of computer and paperwork, meetings at the most inconvenient times, and daily frustrations, just like most jobs out there. Even as the Garudas leave for the day, many will stop at the gym or store on their way home, just like everyone else. Like most Americans, they’ll tell their spouses about their days and play with their kids after dinner. The difference between them and civilians is they work to protect our freedoms every day.
Glossary of Terms
Additional duties for officers such as Division Officer, MWR Officer, Logistics Officer, and Voting Assistance Officer that aid in the running of the squad-ron and hone leadership skills. Responsibilities are disbursed based on rank and switched every six to nine months.
The Electronic Warfare Officer flies in the jet’s backseat. His or her main role is to identify enemy electromagnetic signals and jam them, preventing enemy attacks.
Rates and Ranks
In the Navy, enlisted personnel are referred to by their ratings, or job qualifications. Officers are referred to by their ranks. For example, an enlisted rate of AO means Aviation Ordnanceman, with AO2 meaning Aviation Ordnanceman Second Class.
The state of qualifications and accumulated training hours that ensure personnel are ready to successfully complete their missions in wartime.
Officially, the person who has command of a boat. In the Navy, land operations are often referred to in boat phraseology, so the commander of a Naval aviation wing is known as the Skipper, as is the commander of a squadron.
An organization consisting of multiple squadrons who share a similar mission, like maritime reconnaissance. In naval aviation, a squadron will consist of the aviators and support personnel for a specific aircraft.
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