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Marine aviation marks history as last FA-18 Hornets land from deployment with USS Nimitz

Sailors direct an F/A-18C Hornet, from the "Death Rattlers" of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323, on the flight deck of the USS Nimitz on Feb. 19, 2021.

CHARLES DEPARLIER/U.S. NAVY

By ERIKA I. RITCHIE | The Orange County Register | Published: February 27, 2021

SANTA ANA, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Eleven F/A-18 Hornets launched from the deck of the USS Nimitz on Thursday heralding the end of an era for the famed fighter jets in the Marine Corps.

The flight to the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar's tarmac marked the last time the Marines would deploy with Hornets on an aircraft carrier. By 2028, most pilots will fly the more stealth F-35 B fighter jets.

It also marked the end of an 11-month deployment to the Middle East and Africa for the USS Nimitz, it's 5,000 sailors, and accompanying destroyers, which on Friday arrived at Naval Base San Diego.

The 11 jets, part of squadron VMFA-323 known as the Death Rattlers, appeared over the skies of Mirimar in two formations, landing at exact intervals and then taxing together in a line. Among the pilots was Lt. Col William Mitchell, the commanding officer of the squadron, who was the last to fly off the Nimitz.

The Death Rattlers transitioned to the famed fighter jet in 1982.

When their engines powered down Thursday, families, friends and pilots from other squadrons joyfully welcomed them home.

The Death Rattlers logged more than 35,000 flight hours, 14,000 missions supporting the tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel and practicing landings, and fired off nearly 250,000 rounds of ammunition, Marine officials said.

Also returning with the USS Nimitz were the destroyers USS Sterett and the USS Princeton and two other Navy helicopter squadrons based at Naval Air Station North that had deployed with the carrier air group.

"The sailors and Marines and their families have given it their all for almost a year," Rear Adm. Jim Kirk said Friday as the ships' return was celebrated. "They successfully kept COVID out of the strike group beginning in April and stayed healthy throughout our time standing the watch for our nation."

Kirk commended the service members for their hard work ensuring the crew's safety, health and readiness and credited the strike group for their contributions to security and stability in the Middle East, Africa and Western Pacific during periods of tension and transition.

"I am immensely proud of this team and all that they accomplished during this unprecedented deployment," he said.

The 11-month deployment — almost double that of a typical Navy and Marine strike group deployment — was extended twice.

While deployed, the strike group completed training operations with the Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Groups and participated in the India-hosted multinational exercise, Malabar 2020, in the Bay of Bengal that also included the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Australian Navy.

They also participated in the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan with close air support and defensive counter-air missions against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The strike group supported international maritime security to ensure the free flow of commerce and maritime security in three critical waterways, military officials said.

The Nimitz strike group also operated off the coast of Somalia in December during the repositioning of U.S. forces within East Africa.

While on deployment, pilots from the strike group also trained with another Marine unit from Camp Pendleton in Kuwait in December on a ground refueling mission. The Marines trained on creating a makeshift airport in an area that would typically not be equipped for fueling capabilities.

The USS Nimitz will now return to its home base in Washington.

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An F/A-18C Hornet, from the "Death Rattlers" of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323, launches off the flight deck of the USS Nimitz on Feb. 19, 2021.
CHARLES DEPARLIER/U.S. NAVY