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Valions Tribute: Tac Demo Gladiators Honor VFA-15 with Retro F-18

A USN VFA-106 F-18 with the USN Tac Demo joins Jim Tobul in his F4-U Corsair for a VFA-15 tribute Legacy shoot with photojournalist Mike Killian for the TICO Warbird Air Show in Titusville, FL. Photo: Mike Killian

The 2017 airshow season is almost a wrap across the United States, and one of the crowd favorites, the NAVY Tac Demo “GLADIATORS” from VFA-106, paid tribute to the storied career and rich heritage of VFA15, the “VALIONS”, by flying a specially painted F-18 legacy Hornet at select show sites to honor the squadron’s retirement.

The Valions were decommissioned earlier this year after 75 years of service.

Born on Jan. 10, 1942 as Torpedo Squadron Four (VT-4) aboard the USS Ranger at Grassy Bay, Bermuda, just one month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the VALIONS flew six different aircraft, operated from fifteen aircraft carriers and made 36 major deployments around the world.

A VFA-106 F/A-18 Hornet in formation with Jim Tobul piloting his F4-U Corsair “Korean War Hero” at the 2017 TICO Warbird Air Show in Titusville, FL. Photo: Mike Killian (Team Aeroshell photo pilot)

They began service flying the TBD Devastator, followed soon after by the TBM Avenger, protecting the sea-lanes between Bermuda and Newfoundland before transitioning to the AD-4 Skyraider in March 1949. They were aboard the USS Ranger when it escorted British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and HMS Queen Mary to the Quebec Conference in 1943, where the Allies discussed plans for invading Italy and France.

Sixteen years later they transitioned to the A-4 Skyhawk, before flying the A-7E Corsair II.

Sporting a retro “Seagull” paint job, the F/A-18C Legacy Hornet flown by the VFA-106 demo team this year paid tribute to that Corsair, which the VALIONS flew until 1987 when they transitioned to the F/A-18 and were re-designated from VA-15 to Strike Fighter Squadron Fifteen (VFA15).

“It’s incredible, it’s an honor and a privilege to fly this and perform in front of people,” said VFA-106 demo pilot Lt. Scott “MacGruber” Lindahl.

VALIONS flew over 2,600 sorties over North Vietnam in the late 60s, and were in the Arabian Gulf in 1980 when Iran released American embassy hostages. They flew some of the first sorties in support of DESERT STORM on Jan. 19, 1991, and carried out strike missions until the suspension of hostilities was ordered a month later.

In the years that followed, they flew over 300 sorties in support of operation ALLIED FORCE, cruised the Northern Arabian Gulf in support of Operation SOUTHERN WATCH, and put bombs on target while patrolling the skies of southern Iraq.

A-7E Corsair II (BuNo 159658) from attack squadron VA-15 Valions on 1 June 1976, armed with ten 227 kg (500 lb) Mk 82 bombs. VA-15 was assigned to Carrier Air Wing 6 (CVW-6) aboard the aircraft carrier USS America (CV-66) for a deployment to the Mediterranean Sea from 15 April to 25 October 1976. Photo: USN

The squadron was on their way home aboard the USS Enterprise when they watched terrorists attack the homeland on Sep. 11, 2001. They immediately turned around for the Northern Indian Ocean, and helped bring the tip of the spear into Afghanistan in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, flying 185 sorties and dropping 232,000 pounds of firepower.

Operations after that focused mainly in support of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as searching for pirates off the Horn of Africa in 2006. Close to 2,000 combat sorties were flown up until December 2011, when VALIONS were deployed aboard the USS George H. W. Bush and maintained a 100% combat sortie completion rate in support of Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and NEW DAWN.

A VALIONS F/A-18C Hornet launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). Photo: USN

The loss of VFA15 comes as a victim of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, with the Navy eliminating three squadrons and reducing Carrier Air Wings to nine until the number of deployable carriers can fully support a 10th wing, or until Oct 1, 2025 (whichever comes first), at which time the Navy will return to a strength of 10 Carrier Air Wings.

Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 112 (VAW-112), an E-2C squadron based at NAS Point Mugu, Calif., and Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 15 (HSC-15), an MH-60S squadron based at NAS North Island, Calif., are also being deactivated.

The names of every VFA-15 commander were on the demo jet. Photo: Mike Killian

“Inside both tails, those are the names of every single commanding officer that has ever commanded VFA15”, pointed MacGruber as he brought me out to see his demo jet.

A “Don’t Tread On Me” flag is painted on the air brake too, showing nicely when the jet makes its signature “photo pass” for spectators.

To mark the occasion and beginning of the show year, the Navy and Tac Demo VFA-106 team agreed to fly a one-of-a-kind photo shoot that had never been done before, joining formation with the F4-U Corsair “Korean War Hero” and P-51D Mustang “Quick Silver” (piloted by Jim “Torc” Tobul and Scott “Scooter” Yoak).

The VFA-106 demo Hornet’s specially painted “Don’t Tread on Me” airbrake. Photo Credit: Pring Photography

After a through briefing (two actually), we held on the runway until the end of MacGruber’s rehearsal, and proceeded immediately to takeoff heading east towards NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It doesn’t take long for an F/18 to catch up, and before we knew it MacGruber was in formation and the photo shoot began.

Time is short and so is fuel; in total we had under six minutes to produce images before heading back so another demo could take the airspace.

Navy Legacy formation and tribute to VFA-15, joined by Scott York in his P-51 Mustang “Quick Silver” and Jim Tobul in his F4-U Corsair “Korean War Hero” at the 2017 TICO Warbird Airshow. Photo: Mike Killian (Team Aeroshell photo pilot)

“We were honored to be a part of it, one of my top favorite flights for sure”, said MacGruber. “For me personally, that was the first time I ever joined up with a P-51 or F4-U, and it was incredible. Both of those aircraft I grew up watching at airshows, and that’s really what inspired me not only to be a pilot, but to apply to be a demo pilot as well.”

The VALIONS officially deactivated this past spring, with a ceremony marking the occasion scheduled for May 31 at NAS Oceana, VA. The squadron gave up its last aircraft in December 2016.

“It has been my distinct honor and privilege to be the final (but hopefully not last) commanding officer of the best Strike Fighter Squadron in the Navy”, said VFA15 CDR Matt “Disney” Stevenson in a recent statement.

The VFA-106 demo Hornet’s specially painted “Don’t Tread on Me” airbrake. Photo Credit: Pring Photography

“They earned the 2016 Retention Excellence Award, the 2016 EAWS Pennant and the 2016 Blue Medical “M”, all while supporting eight detachments in the last year”, he added. “These Sailors have been the epitomy of accomplishing so much with so little and I could not be more proud.”

“They have handled the deactivation and the stormy seas that have come as part of that process with grace and dignity and they continue to produce Full Mission Capable aircraft even today as we help VFA-106 with their maintenance efforts,” he added. “They have humbled me and taught me more than they will ever know.”

ABOVE: Watch the Navy TAC DEMO in action with the tribute F-18 demo jet at the 2017 TICO Air Show on Florida’s ‘Space Coast’.

VALIONS were also ten-time winners of the COMNAVAIRLANT “E” for Battle Efficiency: 1953, 1961, 1962, 1978, 1980, 1983, 1988, 1991, 1999 and 2001; and the Estocin Award winner in 1999, given to the finest strike fighter squadron in the Navy.

“None Finer”

 – With thanks to Greg McNeely and Aeroshell Aerobatic Team for flying photo ship

 – Shoutout to Pring Photography for providing some of their work for this story, give them a LIKE on Facebook!

Follow Mike Killian on Instagram and Facebook, @MikeKillianPhotography 

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Written by Mike Killian

Mike Killian

Killian is an aerospace photographer and writer, with a primary focus on spaceflight and military and civilian aviation. Over the years his assignments have brought him onboard NASA's space shuttles, in clean rooms with spacecraft destined for other worlds, front row for launches of historic missions and on numerous civilian and military flight assignments.

When not working the California-native enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, storm chasing, producing time-lapses and shooting landscape and night sky imagery, as well as watching planes of course.

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