I recently had the opportunity to fly with "The Gladiators" of VFA-106. The unit is one of two Fleet Replacement Squadrons, also known by the simple FRS acronym that train aircrews in the F/A-18 Hornet. The "Gladiators" are assigned to the Atlantic Fleet and operate out of Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia.
The unit traces its roots back to World War II when Strike-Fighter Squadron ONE ZERO SIX began as Bomber-Fighter Squadron 17 (VBF-17) at Agana Air Field, Guam on January 11, 1945. One month later, flying F6F-5 Hellcats, VBF-17 embarked onboard USS HORNET (CV 12) to participate in combat operations against the Japanese. Operations included strikes against Tokyo, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa as well as the first major air strikes against the islands of Kyushu and Shikoku. The decades that followed saw the unit transition into the jet age and eventually conduct combat operations again over the troubled skies of Vietnam while operating from numerous carriers. Strike Fighter Squadron 106 (VFA-106) was commissioned at NAS Cecil Field on April 27, 1984, flying the Navy's newest tactical aircraft, the F/A-18 Hornet. In the summer of 1999 VFA-106 moved from NAS Cecil Field to NAS Oceana, VA. Starting in 2004, VFA-106 began flying the F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet, at the same time continuing to fly the legacy F/A-18C and F/A-18D.
The "Gladiators" are unique in that they train aircrews in every variant of the Hornet that the Navy is still flying. This includes the legacy C and D models as well as the brand new E and F model Super Hornets. The unit is divided into two parts based on the older legacy jets and the newer Super Hornets. The mission of the FRS is to train competent, safe, combat wingmen. Ensuring the fleet gets a quality combat wingman is the job of the FRS. Once the students arrive on our doorstep, it is the job of the units highly trained instructors to train them for the fleet. VFA-106 E/F currently has 51 instructors on board, 31 pilots and 20 WSOs. VFA-106 C/D currently has 31 pilots on board.
Lt. Commander Steven 'Sonic' Hejmanowski the Operations Officer for the Super Hornet portion of VFA-106 comments on how the instructors at VFA-106 are selected. "The instructors are selected from the various fleet squadrons - the cadre consists of aircrew from all variants of the F/A-18 as well as F-14 aircrew. The instructors here were top performers in their respective fleet squadrons. The billets for the FRS are very competitive and only the most competitive aircrew are billeted to the command. Tour lengths are typically 30 months long. This is the standard tour length for "first shore tours."
VFA-106 currently has 44 Hornets on board (27 "C" and 17 "D"). On the E/F side of the house there are 34 aircraft total. Currently there are 12 "E," 7 "F" (F/T - Trainer version with Stick and throttles in the rear cockpit) and 10 "F" (FS - missonized aircraft with separate/distinct cockpits for Pilot and WSO). These numbers will vary from time to time depending on the "ebb and flow" of the Navy's overseas and deployment commitments.
'Sonic' commented on the classes the unit runs and the scope of the organization, "VFA-106 E/F has 6-7 classes per year. Each class has 5-7 Category I pilots and 4-5 Category I WSOs (freshly winged). Each class will also have a number of "Category Others." The Cat Others are aviators who are "returning" to the fleet - Super JOs, Department Heads, PXOs and PDCAGs. Their syllabus is not as long as the Category I replacement aircrew. Length of syllabus for CAT II, III, IV and V vary depending on experience level and time "out" of the cockpit. FY-07 will see VFA-106 E/F produce 102 replacement aircrew for the fleet. The C/D side of the house will produce 50.
VFA-106 is, as you can see, a very large organization. The command essentially has two maintenance departments, two operations departments and two training departments. The Commanding Officer obviously has oversight over the entire organization. The respective 'sides," if you will are responsible for the training of respective students in the appropriate "model/series." The syllabi for the C/D and E/F are very similar. And both "sides" work together to provide training and assets to accomplish our missions."
Rick Llinares would like to thank LCDR Steve Hejmanowski and VFA-106 for their support with this article.