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A New Year’s resolution, for aircraft carriers: Exercise has added meaning at Naval Air Force Atlantic

Rear Adm. John F. Meier, Commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic (center) speaks with Secretary of the Navy Kenneth J. Braithwaite and Adm. Michael Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations during a scheduled visit to Naval Air Station Oceana in June.

ANDREW TAYLOR/U.S. NAVY

By DAVE RESS | The Daily Press | Published: December 29, 2020

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — New Year’s Day is a time for resolutions about exercising — and as the anniversary of the founding of Naval Air Force Atlantic 78 years ago, it’s also a chance for Rear Adm. John Meier to reflect that one of his command’s top missions is building muscle memory.

The Navy doesn’t describe its Norfolk-based East Coast air force quite that way — formally, the mission is to provide combat-ready, sustainable planes and people with a focus on readiness, operational excellence, interoperability, safety and efficient resourcing.

These days, that means figuring out the best ways to operate the first of the Navy’s next generation of aircraft carriers, USS Gerald R. Ford, as well as the new unmanned helicopters, the Mq8C, a souped-up Bell 407 helicopter that flies by remote control, which Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 22 has been practicing with at Wallop’s Island. Meanwhile, the Bluetails of VAW121 are learning their way around new E-2D Hawkeye surveillance planes.

“It’s like the cyclic operations you saw on the Ford,” Meier said, recalling a recent visit to observe the carrier’s first integrated operations in November. “Lots of cycles, lots of reps, to build muscle memory. … It’s like when you learn to ride a bicycle, you build up that muscle memory and so you never forget how.”

Much of Naval Air Force Atlantic’s attention is focused on equipment and material, which isn’t the most glamorous work in the Navy, Meier admits.

But it makes a difference, as one milestone hit this week shows: the daily “drumbeat” conference call at the command’s new Maintenance Operating Center reported 360 F/A-18 fighters were mission ready, up from 240 at the same time last year.

“That’s a 50% increase, it’s a huge increase in aircraft in the air,” Meier said. It hasn’t been accomplished the expensive way, by assembling big stockpiles of parts, either.

It’s a matter of stepped up monitoring, daily communication with suppliers and lots of on-the-spot problem solving — people skills, in short.

People skills are what the Navy’s really all about — and developing those is at the heart of Meier’s mission, as he sees it.

In the months and years ahead, more and more sailors and pilots of Naval Air Force Atlantic will be learning the different reflexes a helicopter pilot needs to fly a remotely controlled vehicle and managing the new electronics and software that drive Ford class carriers’ powerful new radar and more-closely knit control and command operations for aircraft, surface ships and missile defense.

Sailors will be learning to operate the new MQ-25 aerial refueling drones that can fly from a carrier to top up the tanks of E-2Ds, now that those new planes can be refueled while in the air.

That means the new electronics that turn E-2Ds into airborne command and control centers as well as their longstanding reconnaissance duty will extend the Navy’s reach that much farther and faster, Meier said.

“We can be 1,000 miles ahead in one day,” he said.

Down the road will come F-35 fighters, with their stealth capabilities, and the MV-22 tilt-rotor planes — a kind of hybrid of helicopter and airplane — that will replace the C-2 “CODs” (carrier on-board delivery airplanes) that currently carry supplies to carriers. But the MV-22s will also be able to operate from a wide range of smaller ships, such as Wasp class amphibious assault ships.

“They can’t quite land on a destroyer, but their vertical flight means heavy lift capability even there,” Meier said. “It’ll be huge increase in what we can do.”

The stepped up activity of the Russian Navy, meanwhile, has meant a return to the command’s historic roots. Formed in 1943, its mission was largely about protecting convoys by fighting German U-boats.

“We faced a serious threat then, it got really bad later that year, and we were slow to respond,” he said. “That’s not happening now.”

Naval Air Force Atlantic’s carrier air wings and shore-based P-8 Poseidons — the big gray planes built on a Boeing 737 frame — routinely track Russian submarines in the Atlantic. When those subs aren’t in the North Atlantic, the command’s pilots and sailors practice with regular, anti-submarine warfare exercises — more muscle memory-building.

Meier, who likes to fly as many different aircraft as he can, took a spin on a Poseidon a few weeks back, getting a feel for the plane and working with the aircrew as they dropped and monitored sonobuoys, the underwater sensors that listen for subs.

“I love to fly, it’s fun … but this job really is a chance for me to see and interact with the sailors who fly and maintain all our different assets,” he said.

“It’s really about the young men and women you see on the flight deck, or in aircraft, or those command-and-control centers or working on planes.”
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