A lucky 13 Royal Maces will be flying what could be their longest mission as they pilot their brand-new Super Hornets from California to Atsugi Naval Air Facility, Japan.

The squadron, also known as Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 27, is set to return to Japan on Thursday after four months’ training on the new aircraft at Lemoore Naval Air Station, Calif. The retraining followed a decision to trade the F/A-18C Hornets the squadron had been flying for more-powerful one-seat F/A-18E Super Hornets. The jets cost $57 million each, according to the U.S. Navy Fact File.

Flying back is the easiest and most efficient way to take delivery, said Lt. Cmdr. John Bernard, spokesman for the Kitty Hawk strike group, although it will be among the longest flights the aviators will make in the aircraft. During training, as well as bombing runs during war, missions typically last a few hours or less.

How long it will take the aircraft to fly 5,475 air miles is unclear. It takes a commercial aircraft about eight hours. The Super Hornet’s two engines deliver a top speed of more than Mach 1.8, according to, but the plane’s increased fuel consumption when flying full throttle makes it unlikely it will travel at top speed.

The Navy declined to say when the jets are to leave California.

Bernard said the aviators would land once at an undisclosed location to sleep. Also, at some points along the way, the Super Hornets will be refueled in the air from U.S. Air Force tankers.

“To get that far, you’ve got to get a lot of gas,” Bernard said. “You have to go to the big gas station, which is the Air Force.”

The aviators will land at Atsugi “in waves” every few minutes, be greeted by Air Wing officials and reunite with their families.

In all, some 200 aviators and support crew spent time in California to learn to fly or fix the aircraft, said Brian Naranjo, Atsugi spokesman.

This will be the second squadron of Super Hornets in Carrier Air Wing 5, which flies from the deck of the USS Kitty Hawk when deployed. Last fall, the first Super Hornets — two-seaters — arrived, replacing a squadron of F-14 Tomcats and their aviators. The Tomcats, though beautiful and widely loved, were being decommissioned.

“The transition to the Super Hornet is part of a long-range plan to replace current forward-deployed naval forces units with newer, more capable aircraft,” stated a Navy release. “The Super Hornet is fully capable of conducting both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat and support missions.”

The Super Hornet, the Navy’s newest strike fighter, is 25 percent larger than its predecessor, offers increased range, greater endurance, more-powerful engines and can carry more payload, according to the Navy.

It also can serve as an aerial tanker, fueling other Super Hornets, according to various reports. That will mean increased efficacy during operations because the fighter-bombers won’t have to wait for the older, slower planes that traditionally have served as tankers.

In Carrier Air Wing 5, that was the S-3B Viking, flown by the Fighting Redtails of Sea Control Squadron (VS) 2. Originally designed for anti-submarine warfare during the Cold War, the Viking lost some of its macho image when it was reconfigured to primarily provide fuel.

But now the Viking, nicknamed “the Hoover” because it sounds like a vacuum cleaner, is being phased out of the Navy within the next five years, according to news reports. The Fighting Redtails are to be decommissioned sometime in the next few months.

“There is no plan right now to put another squadron in their place,” Bernard said, “because the capabilities they have are incorporated into the Super Hornet.”

And because the fighter/bomber jets no longer will have to wait for their tanker to arrive, they’ll be able to fly farther, faster. That, Bernard said, means “better service.”

The air wing still has two squadrons of Hornets.

The Royal Maces left the Kitty Hawk in May, flying their Hornets to California. That they were re-training to fly Super Hornets was an open secret for some time; it even was posted on a Navy Web site. But the Navy, concerned about necessary protocols with Japan, did not officially release the news until last month.

The Super Hornets can be a somewhat touchy subject because their added power means increased noise, and Atsugi Naval Air Facility, once remote, now sits in the middle of a populous area.

The Navy has tried to ameliorate noise from aircraft operations by doing as much practice as is possible on the remote island of Iwo Jima.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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