PEARL HARBOR Navy Lt. Stephan Walborn
is a "nugget", a first-tour pilot aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.
Navy pilot Lt. Stephan Walborn calls the Super Hornet his weapon of choice. Walborn, himself on his first combat tour, could be among the first to pilot the aircraft in combat.
For this deployment, he'll have more than his commanding officer's eyes on his performance. Walborn, 27, pilots the F/A-18E, the Navy's newest warplane. Like Walborn, the Super Hornet is on its maiden voyage."There's probably a lot of guys with big shoulders around these parts taking a look at what's going on with this airplane and what it's going to do," Walborn said.
Walborn and fellow VFA-115 squadron members will demonstrate the operational capabilities of the first new U.S. tactical aircraft ushered into service in 20 years. The Super Hornets will replace F-14 Tomcats and older Hornets in the Navy fleet. "All we can do is get out there and get after it and give it the best shot that we've got," said Walborn, who has been piloting the Super Hornet since August 2000. "I think our squadron is definitely ready to do it. We've got some guys that are just hell on wheels when it comes to tactics." During the combat deployment, the Navy will evaluate the single-seat F/A-18E a larger version of the Hornet strike fighter that's been in service with the Marines and Navy since the 1980s as well as advances such as its Raytheon Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) system.
"We agreed that we would see if we could find some missions to roll (ATFLIR) into," Commander Jeff Penfield, commanding officer of VFA-115, told Defense Daily as the Lincoln headed to Hawai'i. "Hopefully, we will be able to take it across the beach and provide the decision makers some additional information (before the targeting system is finalized)." F/A-18F Super Hornets with two seats will be used in particular for forward air control and enemy air-defense suppression missions. Twelve Super Hornets from Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif., are aboard the Lincoln, which stopped here Thursday and headed back to sea Saturday.
Three Pearl Harbor-based surface ships, the USS Frank Fletcher, USS Paul Hamilton and USS Reuben James, along with the submarine USS Honolulu, are accompanying the battle group on its deployment to the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Souther Watch. Even up close, the $57 million twin-engine attack jet nearly double the cost of earlier Hornets looks almost identical to F/A-18 C/D models. But the newer aircraft is 4.2 feet longer, has a 25 percent bigger wing area for more ordnance, carries 33 percent more fuel, and has 35 percent higher thrust engines.
On a typical interdiction mission, the F/A-18 E/F can fly up to 40 percent farther than the older Hornets. In combat air patrol, the Super Hornet can remain on station 80 percent longer. Walborn, who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1997, took the controls of a Super Hornet directly out of training command.
"So I don't really have much to compare it to as far as flying the Charlie (C models) and then flying the Echo (E models)," Walborn said. "I can tell you straight up, though, that I'm definitely a proponent of (the Super Hornet). I love the thing. It definitely allows you to perform maneuvers when you are in an ACM (air combat maneuvers) situation you can pull for all she's worth."
The only ding Walborn gives to the new aircraft is its slower acceleration "going through the number" hitting Mach 1 with its bigger wings.
With a multitude of missions including air superiority, day/night strike with precision-guided weapons, fighter escort, close air support, suppression of enemy defenses, reconnaissance, forward air control and tanker capabilities, some have questioned the demand placed on the single pilot flying the F/A-18Es like those aboard the Lincoln. "There's definitely pros and cons. With a single seat, you are pretty much always in the problem," Walborn said. "As a new guy, there are times I may not be exactly where I need to be." Having a second set of eyes would help with that "situational awareness," he said. "However, with that said, everything that goes on in that airplane I have something to do with," he said. "I know what's going on, I'm throwing the switches, I'm making the radio calls."
Over the next six months, Walborn likely will be put to the test. The Navy fighter-pilot has an older brother who is an S-3B Viking pilot, "so he's been able to kind of coach me along, tell me what to expect."
And he can't complain about his ride.
"It's phenomenal the way these aircraft have been (maintained) for us to take them on a cruise," he said. Some are just over a year old and still have a "new-car" smell, he said."I'm not going to make any bones about it I'll definitely have the pucker factor as far as taking her over the beach, wherever we do wind up going," Walborn said. "But I think of all the aircraft that you'll see on this flight deck, this is the airplane that I'd choose to be in."
5 August 2002