On Jun. 2, 2002, VF-211 Fighting Checkmates (tactical callsign NICKEL) switched from Pacific service with CVW-9 to CVW-1 and brought with them the last frontline F-14As flying in the US Navy. As explained by Mike Crutch in his book CVW: US Navy Carrier Air Wing Aircraft 1975-2015, the squadron would conduct just one cruise in USS Enterprise (CVN-65, and CVW-1’s assigned carrier from July 2002), over Aug. 28, 2003 through Feb. 29, 2004. VF-211 flew some 220 combat sorties during the cruise, mostly for IRAQI FREEDOM, though with some Afghanistan theatre taskings including Operation MOUNTAIN RESOLVE during November, a US Army division-level assault on Al Qa’ida/Taliban fighters in the north of the country. However, the inability of the F-14A model to drop the weapon of choice for accuracy – the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) family – relegated the Tomcats to mostly TARPS and target designation roles.
VF-211 would make its final Tomcat trap and catapult launch on May 20, 2004 as USS Enterprise conducted local operations off Virginia. The ‘Fighting Checkmates’ were the last squadron to operate the original F-14A model, which had entered fleet service in 1972. VF-211’s move towards VFA status began in earnest soon after, and the last F-14As to serve (BuNos 161612, 162610, 158632, 161626 and 161297) departed Oceana on Sep. 13, 2004 and entered AMARC later that day. NICKEL 103 (BuNo 158632) was the last to land in Arizona and therefore became the last F-14A to fly in US service.
VF-211 embarked on the road to becoming a strike fighter squadron on Oct. 1 as they began F/A-18F conversion at Lemoore, and would become the first LANTFLT-assigned Super Hornet squadron.
Mike Crutch also discovered an interesting mistake that’s been lost in history – and Pentagon paperwork – while writing volume one of his book. Although the CVW-1 command history states VF-211 became VFA-211 in October 2004, it seems that no one within the squadron, air wing or Fighter Wing, US Atlantic Fleet (FITWINGLANT) – the parent ‘type commander’ for fleet Tomcats – saw it as their job to formally re-designate the unit.
Indeed, FITWINGLANT itself deactivated on Oct. 1, 2004 though the official paperwork for such was not promulgated until Jan. 27, 2005, at which point its list of remaining subordinate units (which were to be re-assigned with immediate effect to Strike Fighter Wing, US Atlantic Fleet) still included ‘FITRON 211’. This lack of paperwork – the lifeblood of the Pentagon – was acknowledged in OPNAV Instruction 5030-4G ‘Navy Aviation Squadron Lineage and Naval Aviation Command Insignia’ issued in April 2012, and gave the re-designation date as Aug. 1, 2006 even though no actual paperwork has been raised for that date either. To make matters worse, a double typographical error in a footnote makes two mentions of the oversight pertaining to VF-213 (not VF-211!) and this error is duplicated in the latest edition of ‘United States Naval Aviation 1910-2010’, published by the Naval History & Heritage Command. As a result of this oversight, the failed attempt at correction and the perpetuated error, the Fighting Checkmates to this day could technically claim themselves to be the US Navy’s last and only fighter squadron! Last year, thanks to this research, the squadron ordered some VF-211 patches to make the point…
CVW: US Navy Carrier Air Wing Aircraft 1975-2015 is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy
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