NAS Fallon and TOP GUN/NSAWC

1 EA-18G_168273_500_3-2013_1024 The airfield at Naval Air Station Fallon is named in honor of Lieutenant Van Voorhis (1908-1943), who was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. NAS Fallon is located in northern Nevada, east of the city of Reno. Three runways (2135 m / 7004 ft, 3376 m / 11077 ft and 4268 m / 14003 ft) and a training area with more than 10,200 square miles of airspace serve the pilots that operate from Van Voorhis Field. When MCAS El Toro was closed in 1996 and the Marines relocated to NAS Miramar (thus becoming MCAS Miramar), the US Navy sent the TOP GUN school, previously based at NAS Miramar, to NAS Fallon. Ever since then, those aircraft have been permanently stationed at Fallon. It started with the F-14A Tomcats and F/A-18A/B Hornets of the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC), plus the F-5E/F Tiger IIs of VFC-13. During 2002 and 2003, F-16As and -Bs which had been stored for 10 years at Davis-Monthan AFB’s AMARG (because of the arms embargo against Pakistan) were reactivated and supplied to the US Navy for use as aggressor aircraft.

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Besides the well-known Fighter Weapons School/TOP GUN, NSAWC is home to the Early Warning Weapons School (TOPDOME). Today at NAS Fallon, US Navy and Marine aircrews study tactics and train to use them. More than 130 officers, 250 men and 500 maintenance personnel (mostly Boeing) are employed here. NSAWC has F/A-18C/D Hornets, F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers, F-16A/B Fighting Falcons, E-2C Hawkeyes and SH-60R/S Seahawk helicopters on strength. TOP GUN (United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program) was established on March 3, 1969 in response to the poor performance of fighter pilots in the Vietnam War. Initially, the pilots at TOP GUN did not fight against similar aircraft types when they flew, but used smaller but more agile A-4 Skyhawks and F-5 Tigers.

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The “TOP GUN” courses last nine weeks and are run four times a year. Tactics and training includes the current world threats encountered during air-air and air-to-ground missions. Nine F/A-18C/D/E and F pilots and WSOs are trained in each course; only experienced pilots and WSOs are selected. The course includes 25 flights and 80 theoretical hours. The students go back to their operational squadrons and share their knowledge with their squadron mates. As a successful graduate, they also have the option to become a “TOP GUN” instructor. In the 90s, TOP GUN added the attack of ground targets to its syllabus, as the F/A-18 aircraft and units got tasked with more and more of “swing role” operations. TOP GUN was well known due to the eponymous film starring Tom Cruise. The film gave the producers full cinema cash boxes, but the US Navy received a wave of candidates who wanted to become pilots. NAS Fallon even served as a backdrop for part of the film. For example, NAS Fallon’s control tower was the one overflown by Maverick at low altitude.

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VFC-13 “Saints” moved to NAS Fallon in April 1996, and was reestablished with F-5 Tiger II jets. The Tiger is used as an aggressor aircraft by the US Navy; they are not painted in usual gray camouflage colors, but carry a number of different patterns in gray/blue and brown or green tones. Beginning in 2005, VFC-13 had a permanent detachment at NAS Key West, FL. With a larger number of available F-5Ns and more workload, the detachment was restructured into the VFC-111 “Sun Downers” in November 2006. Four to six times a year the US Navy moves a Carrier Wing to NAS Fallon, which remains there for four weeks for its Bombing Qualification Training. Deployed are 40 to 60 aircraft and required personnel; NAS Fallon has the required housing and infrastructure to accommodate the members of the Wing. The jets of the Carrier Wing are parked on a separate ramp, which also has a large maintenance hangar. They fly several missions a day, but also train at night. Some of the Wing crews also work with NSAWC or VFC-13 aircraft.

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Since 1972, a Search and Rescue unit has been stationed at NAS Fallon.  The “Longhorns” serve the Carrier Wings who come for training at Fallon, as well as for locally based flyers. From 1972 through 2009, the unit flew Bell HH-1Ns, then transitioned to the Sikorsky SH-60F from 2009 through 2011.  Since 2011, the Sikorsky MH-60S has been their mount. The Longhorns’ helicopters wear their distinctive white and red colors, operating from Hangar 7. Special thanks go to Zip Upham, who always has the time, desire and patience to accompany us.

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Peter Boschert

Peter is a photographer covering events in the United States and in Europe. He likes to cover Nellis AFB, NAS Fallon and RAF Lakenheath.

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