Naval Aviator who took part in first F/A-18E combat mission tells the story of Super Hornet’s combat debut

Naval Aviator who took part in first F/A-18E combat mission tells the story of Super Hornet’s combat debut

By Dario Leone
Dec 20 2022
Sponsored by: Osprey Publishing
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The OSW sortie of Nov. 6, 2002 was doubly significant, as it was the first strike conducted by aircraft from CVN-72 on the deployment, and it marked the combat debut of the F/A-18E Super Hornet.


Fresh from conducting Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) patrols over Afghanistan, USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) steamed into the NAG from the Northern Arabian Sea in late October 2002 where the aircrew of the embarked Carrier Air Wing Fourteen (CVW-14) started to perform the Operation Southern Watch (OSW) mission.

CVN-72 would subsequently become an almost permanent fixture in the Northern Arabian Gulf (NAG), conducting a ten-month-long extended cruise that started on Jul. 20, 2002 and finished on May 6, 2003. For much of this time the vessel was assigned to the Fifth Fleet, either in the NAG or in the Northern Arabian Sea.

As told by Tony Holmes in his book US Navy Hornet Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom Part One, the man in charge of overseeing CVW-14’s enforcement of OSW ROs (Response Operations, missions devised within the CAOC-approved pre-planned retaliatory strike framework) was air wing commander Capt Kevin Albright, who told visiting journalists aboard CVN-72 in November 2002 that within days of arriving in the NAG he had noted a change in the way the Iraqis were opposing the Navy’s operations;

‘They are shooting a lot at us, and they are really trying hard to down our aircraft — not just firing up in the air. They are firing at our people.’

VFA-115 F/A-18E print
This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F/A-18E Super Hornet VFA-115 Eagles, NK200 / 165781 / 2006

Albright also spoke about how the ROs being actioned in-theatre had altered significantly as well;

‘We are now going after more substantive targets than two years ago. For me, dropping bombs on a command bunker is always more significant than knocking out an S-60 anti-aircraft gun’.

The first RO undertaken by CVW-14 saw two SAM launchers at Al Kut and an air Defence command and control bunker at Tallil air base attacked on Nov. 6, 2002. This mission was doubly significant, as it was the first strike conducted by aircraft from CVN-72 on the deployment, and it marked the combat debut of the F/A-18E Super Hornet. One of the pilots involved in the first successful strike by the then Navy’s newest tactical fighter was VFA-115‘s Lt John Turner, who recalled;

‘My wingman and I were flying a standard day mission over southern Iraq when a section of USAF jets that had just dropped bombs on a target in response to a No-Fly Zone violation was shot at. We were on the point of returning to the tanker for gas, having been on our Vul (period of vulnerability) station for 80 minutes, when we were given clearance to conduct an immediate retaliation strike on an air defence bunker that CAOC believed was controlling some of the AAA sites in the area where the violation had occurred.

VFA-115 Super Hornet

`Despite our long time on station, we still had sufficient fuel left to make the 80-mile run to the target. My wingman and I dropped our JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) on the bunker, and although we were fired at, our egress was uneventful and we recovered back aboard the ship. We recorded our own BHA (Battle Hit Assessment) pictures of the drop on our standard NITE Hawk FLIR pods.’

The importance of this mission to the Navy as a whole, and CVW-14 in particular, was brought home to Lt Turner upon his return to the ship;

‘The first thing you do when you get back to the carrier after dropping weapons is turn your mission tapes in and get them reviewed and verified for the accuracy of your bombing. Normally, it is just you and the squadron intelligence officer who review the tapes, but on this occasion by the time I walked into the squadron ready room the CTF-50 admiral, the captain of the ship, CAG Albright and my boss were all standing there waiting anxiously to see the video! These guys were more interested in the fact that it was the first time that CVW-14 had dropped bombs in OSW on this cruise, rather than the first time the Super Hornet had expended ordnance in anger. Fortunately for my wingman and I, the video showed four perfect hits! With JDAM, you plug in your coordinates, and as long as they are accurate the bomb is going to hit the target. The weapon makes BHA and collateral damage assessment very easy.’

VFA-115 conducted further strikes the following day.

US Navy Hornet Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom Part One is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

F/A-18F model
This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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