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VFA-32 Swordsman patch - Courtesy US Navy
Fightin' 32 - The Swordsmen.
Author: Robin Powney
Photography: Paul Tiller and author
Gypsy 104, F-14B Tomcat VF-32 ready room, CVN-75
CAG bird tail
F-14B Tomcat

November 1st, 2005 was the sad end of an era for the Oceana-based Swordsmen. After thirty-two years of operating the most recognizable naval aircraft (and certainly the one aircraft that most of the cinema going public can identify with relative ease) on the planet and fifty-seven years as VF-32, it was time for a name change. Overnight, VF-32 morphed into VFA-32 – the simple addition of the ‘A’ seemingly simplifying the massive change from a Fighter Squadron to a Strike Fighter Squadron. Having said that, the Squadrons flying the mighty ‘Cat have been doing Strike Fighter Squadron missions for a long time now. In fact, in 1999, VF-41 Black Aces upset the apple cart somewhat when they were awarded the McClusky award for “Best Attack Squadron”– an award normally reserved for the F/A-18 squadrons.

Following in the recent footsteps of VFA-11 and VFA-143, this change makes the Swordsmen the latest unit to swap their ageing F-14B Tomcats for the latest in US Navy airpower – the Super Hornet and, like VFA-11, the Swordsmen will be getting twin-seat F/A-18Fs. Over the years, thirty-two fleet fighter units have flown the ‘Cat and during the mid to late 80s, all units were still in existance, yet now only two Tomcat units remain – VF-31 Tomcatters and VF-213 Black Lions, both flying the last incarnation of the mighty Cat... the F-14D. Their Cats are slightly different to previous Ds as VF-31 and VF-213 both have Cats that have recently been cleared to employ the 500lb GBU-38 JDAM. Both squadrons are currently assigned to CVW-8 and embarked aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt conducting missions in support of ongoing operations in Iraq & Afghanistan and Maritime Security Operations in the Persian Gulf.

Gypsy 102, F-14B Tomcat Battle E, Deus et Patria, close up
Gypsy 114, F-14B Tomcat Gypsy 105, F-14B Tomcat
Gypsy 102, F-14B Tomcat F-14B Tomcat
VF-32 lineup Gypsy 103, F-14B Tomcat
VF-32 started life way back on 1 February 1945 when VF-3 split to form two sister units – VF-3 and VBF-3. Just nine days after VBF-3s official stand-up, the Crazy Cats and their F6F “Dash 5” Hellcats were assigned to Carrier Air Group 3 and sent to sea aboard the 27,000t Essex-class USS Yorktown. About a week later, Crazy Cat pilots of Flight 2-A became not just the first ever USN pilots but the first ever fighter pilots to bomb targets on mainland Japan. A year later and, following a transition onto the bubble-canopied F8F-1 Bearcat, VBF-3 was redesignated as VF-4A. It wasn’t until a further redesignation in August 1948 that they were to become VF-32. Their first taste of combat as VF-32 came in 1950 in the Korean War whilst embarked on the USS Leyte (officially a long-hull Ticonderoga-class carrier) - the embarked airwing managed to rack up more than 11,000 flight hours. During their May 1950 to February 1951 association with the Leyte, VF-32s F4U-4s flew alongside VF-31s F9F-2 Panthers – the slower precursor to the swept-wing J48-engined F9F-6 Cougar that VF-32 would soon transition onto when they returned home. In doing so, VF-32 became the first operators of the Cougar. Unlike the older and slower Panther, the Cougars couldn’t be outclassed by MiG-15 Fagots but they made it into service too late to see action in the Korean War.
Following a handful of deployments with the Cougar, the squadron swapped their aircraft yet again - this time to become the USNs first supersonic squadron with the J57-powered Vought F8U-1 Crusader. VF-32 re-equipped with the Crusader at NAS Cecil Field, Florida in March 1957 and in early 1958 became the first front line unit to operate a Crusader from a carrier when they embarked on the USS Saratoga for a Mediterranean cruise (the first Pacific Fleet deployment of the Crusader was with VF-154 aboard the USS Hancock about a fortnight after VF-32 took their F8U-1s to sea). During this cruise, the Saratoga’s first with Sixth Fleet, her airwing and that embarked on the USS Essex flew long range air-cover missions in support of Operation BLUE BAT - the amphibious landing of Marines in Beirut to secure the airport, the port and approaches to the city and to provide support for the Lebanese against internal uprising and threats from Syria and Egypt.
Gypsy 102, F-14B Tomcat Gypsy 104, F-14B Tomcat
Oceana flightline Gypsy 115,, F-14B Tomcat
Gypsy 104, F-14B Tomcat Gypsy 104, F-14B Tomcat
Vapour... Tomcat stylie! Gypsy 100, F-14B Tomcat
Following the introduction of the Tri-Service designation scheme in 1962, the F8U-1 became the F-8A. Later that year, VF-32 once again went to sea aboard the Saratoga (and yet again alongside VF-31, but the Tomcatters were now flying F-3B Demons) for a Caribbean cruise but this time with the F-8D derivative of the Crusader - the all-weather interceptor variant. The Mach 1.7 Crusader was the last American fighter which employed guns as the primary armament and the reason the Crusader became known as The Last of the Gunfighters. In 1965, VF-32 moved homebase from NAS Cecil Field to NAS Oceana and re-equipped with F-4B Phantoms which signalled the end of their partnership with the Saratoga. Their first Toom cruise was as part of CVW-1 aboard USS Franklin D. Roosevelt which took them to war over Vietnam alongside the F-4B-equipped VF-14 and three A-4 light attack units. This South East Asia cruise ended in February 1967, only for CVW-1 and CV-42 to be redeployed to the Mediterranean for a nearly eight month cruise from August of that same year. In early 1969, VF-32 and CVW-1 embarked on the brand new USS John F Kennedy for her maiden Mediterranean cruise that lasted nearly nine months. VF-32s last cruise as an F-4 unit was in 1973 and in the four years between had seen the Caribbean, Mediterranean and North Atlantic. VF-32 had also been on the JFK for her first visit to a North Atlantic port when she visited Edinburgh.
Seven months later, in July 1974, VF-32 left the F-4 behind for pastures new. These new pastures would involve twin tails and swing wings. Beaten to the new toy by VF-1, VF-2 and VF-14 (their F-4B counterparts on the Roosevelt), they undertook their first CARQUALs (CARrier QUALifications) using USS Kitty Hawk during December of 1974 and then February and March of 1975. In June 1975, now with two F-14 units assigned, CVW-1 returned to the decks of JFK for a Mediterranean cruise taking them into early 1976. On this, their very first Cat cruise, they were awarded the Clifton Award to mark their position as the Navy's top fighter squadron and in 1977 became the first F-14 unit to go toe-to-toe with USAF F-15s in Dissimilar Air Combat Training. Less than a year later, VF-32 became the first unit to test the F-14s TV Camera System and were the first unit to deploy with the AIM-9L for fleet captive carriage trials. During this 1978 cruise, VF-32 also took part in BUZZARDEX, a mid-cruise missile exercise, that saw them launch AIM-7F Sparrow and AIM-54A Pheonix missiles against five Mach 2.5 targets. The fifteen year relationship with CVW-1 came to an end in March 1981 following the end of the last VF-32/CVW-1 Med cruise; fifteen months later VF-32 were at sea again but as part of CVW-6 (still alongside VF-14) on the USS Independence. Three cruises with the Indy saw VF-32 take in the sights and sounds in the Mediterranean, North Atlantic, Caribbean and even the Indian Ocean as CV-62 swapped homeports from Norfolk to San Diego (with LANTFLTs CVW-6 being replaced by PACFLTs CVW-14). During these cruises, CVW-6 aircraft were involved in providing air support for peacekeepers in Lebanon, Operation URGENT FURY (the liberation of Grenada) and even launched strikes against Syrian positions when they got back in the Med after the trip out to Grenada.
CAG bird, nose on
Perhaps the ultimate angle for a Tomcat shot
Gypsy 101, F-14B Tomcat Gypsy 104, F-14B Tomcat
Gypsy 111, F-14B Tomcat Gypsy 115, F-14B Tomcat
Gypsy 101, F-14B Tomcat Gypsy 101, F-14B Tomcat
August 1986 saw the Kennedy get “her” airwing back after spending the winter of 1984 in drydock, but yet again there was to be a shuffle of air wings - VF-14 and VF-32s new home was CVW-3. JFK was deployed to the Med until March 1987 and following a nearly 18-month break was redeployed back to the region in August 1988. It is on this cruise that VF-32 crews once again had a taste of combat. Way back in 1981, Libya decided that the entire Gulf of Sidra was theirs and basically increased the territorial waters claim. The US were somewhat unhappy with this and to challenge it routinely put carrier battle groups just over twelves miles off the Libyan coast. Aircraft from the carriers often broke into these “territorial waters” and were tracked by Libyan radar. Libyan jets were also sent up to “intercept” with the normal course of events being the aircraft turning away and going home. 19 August 1981 would be different – two Libyan Su-22s sent up to intercept two VF-41 F-14As on CAP from the Nimitz got creative. They fired upon the Tomcats, permission was given to engage and the two Su-22s never went home.
Less than eight years later, on 4 January 1989, two VF-32 F-14As took off from the JFK for a routine CAP. Two MiG-23 Floggers were then detected and noted to be on an intercept course. Common practice at the time was to lock on to the Libyan jets with the massively powerful AWG-9 radar giving the Libyans time (or should that be notice?) to turn round and go home. Either these Libyan pilots were brave or stupid as they just kept coming and eventually engaged the Swordsmen duo. Following evasive action from the pair of Tomcats and the clear intentions the Libyans were sending out by trying to maintain a position from which to fire, the MiG-23s were declared hostile and the Tomcats were cleared to fire. From then on, there was only going to be one outcome. The first AIM-7 shot from the lead F-14 (AC-202) missed – AC-207 fired an AIM-7 and brought down one Flogger. The sole remaining Flogger was engaged by the lead Tomcat and an AIM-9 was sent up the tailpipe. Result? The Libyan Air Force were another two jets down.
Gypsy 115, F-14B Tomcat Gypsy 115, F-14B Tomcat
Gypsy 100, F-14B Tomcat Alongside Gunfighter 160, VF-101s retro jet
Blue #7 framed by a pair of Gypsies Gypsy 115, F-14B Tomcat
Gypsy 111, F-14B Tomcat The Last of the Swordsmen, NAS Oceana

Returning home in early 1989 and following some work in the Norfolk shipyard, JFK took part in New York’s Fleet Week 1990 and was in Boston for the July 4th Independence Day celebrations; roughly one month later JFK and CVW-3 were back at sea for Desert Shield. On the way to the western Mediterranean, VF-14 and VF-32 Tomcats took advantage of the proximity to Cyprus to conduct ops against the Akrotiri based RAF Phantoms. Arriving in the Red Sea in September 1990, JFK became the flagship of Commander, Red Sea Battle Group which comprised the Kennedy, Saratoga, America and Theodore Roosevelt. During the early hours of 16 January 1991, Desert Shield changed into Desert Storm and CVW-3 (with two A-7E units on their last cruise) launched air strikes against Iraqi targets. CVW-3 aircraft spent more than 11,000 hours in the air, conducted nearly 10,500 arrested landings from 12,300 launches, flew nearly 2,900 sorties and delivered nearly 1600 tonnes of ordnance on 114 strikes with no loss to man or machine. Furthermore, a VF-32 crew had the distinction of being the last US Navy crew over Baghdad. Whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, the Tomcat force never increased the kill tally and were left with one or two mission types - escorting the strike packages and TARPS (Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System) equipped reconnaissance. At that time, the pod was “wet film” – digital solutions were just not available – yet Navy personnel once managed to get TARPS imagery developed from the film in less than 13 minutes after the jet landed!! The entire Tomcat force flew 781 TARPS missions.

After four months in dock for repairs, maintenance and much needed engineering work to allow the A-7E to be replaced by the F/A-18, CVW-3 were back in the Med (for the fourteenth time) – being more precise, the Adriatic Sea - in late 1992 through to early 1993 and provided support for UN forces involved in Operation Provide Promise in Bosnia. Early on in this cruise, arrested landing number 250000 was chalked up. It is on this cruise that VF-32 first became a "strikefighter" unit and flew many missions against ground targets. When the JFK returned home, she entered a two-year overhaul programme leaving CVW-3 without a ship from which to fly! In October 1994, CVW-3 found a new, albeit temporary, home in the Nimitz-class carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) and departed for a six-month cruise in support of Operations Southern Watch, Deny Flight, Vigilant Warrior, Provide Promise (again) and Sharp Guard. This short month-long deployment was also the first time women formed part of the personnel on a US Navy combatant – 400 women were assigned to CVN-69, CVW-3 and COMCRUDESGRU-8. VF-32 also first started wearing 100-series Modexes on this cruise, after having worn 200-series Modexes for all its active life except the 1953-1954 World Cruise on USS Tarawa.
The old and the new Gypsy 105, F-14B Tomcat
The last Cats in the Fleet Flyby Break!
Gypsy 104, F-14B Tomcat Gypsy 101, F-14B Tomcat
Gypsy 104, F-14B Tomcat Gypsy 104, F-14B Tomcat
When Ike returned home in July 1995, she went in for an 18-month COH so VF-32 was to embark on yet another carrier – the pick this time was USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). CVW-3 was embarked, devoid of VA-75 and their A-6Es – Hornets were the order of the day this time round. Another important change to take place was that VF-32 was now no longer an F-14A unit – they had re-equipped with the more efficient, more powerful F-14B. CVW-3 then spent the six months or so leading up to late May 1997 launching missions in support of Southern Watch and Deliberate Guard. During this deployment, VF-32 became only the second squadron to take LANTIRN capable F-14s to sea and the first time digital TARPS was employed – the previous wet film versions meant the aircraft actually had to return for the film to be developed; the new Pulnix digital camera (replacing the KS-97) meant that commanders and other F-14s in a strike package had near real-time imagery at ranges of up to 300km. The major advantage is that soon after the F-14 flies over a target, the commanders back on the carrier or ashore can identify and classify the target – and potentially authorise a strike against it before the person inside or the vehicle has chance to move. Ike wasn’t home to CVW-3 for long and in November 1998, CVW-3 embarked aboard the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) for a six month cruise that saw them participate in Southern Watch and Desert Fox after relieving USS Theodore Roosevelt. Between the 16th and 19th of December, VF-32 dropped more than 50 tonnes of precision guided ordnance in just 16 missions - an average of more than 3 tonnes per mission. In line with VF-32s penchant for being the first to do things, this cruise was no different - VF-32 F-14Bs were:
- the first USN platform to drop a 2,000-lb GBU-24 Paveway III in combat
- the first ever platform to drop multiple GBU-24s in combat
- first to use the LANTIRN targetting pod in combat
- first to use the automated delivery mode of the GBU-10/16 Paveway II (2,000lb and 1,000lb respectively) and GBU-24.
In late 2000, CVW-3 embarked on the Navy’s latest and greatest Nimitz-class democracy tool – USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) for her maiden voyage to the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf during which CVW-3 supported Southern Watch and took part in Exercise Arabian Gauntlet. Following a successful and incident free maiden cruise, she returned to Norfolk before conducting a week of operations just off the east coast of the USA. September 2002 was the COMPUTEX, prior to the JTFEX in very late October and the first week of November. About a month later, CVW-3 were off on another cruise to the Med. This particular cruise meant CVW-3 crews would be involved in the war against terror in Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom – not to mention the additional and on-going support of Southern Watch. At the start of combat operations, VF-32 had undertaken JDAM and LGB strikes against fixed targets and were arguably the longest of the war - because of diplomatic "problems", the first mission flown saw the strike package of Tomcats and Hornets have to traverse 1,400 miles as they had to fly from the Western Mediterranean, down the Sinai Peninsula, across Saudi Arabia and into Iraq. After these "conventional" missions, VF-32 were then dedicated to providing CAS for special forces in Western Iraq. In yet another first for the squadron, VF-32 crews routinely trained with three 2,000lb JDAMs - until this, no other unit had ever flown the Tomcat with more than two of the 2,000lb weapons and VF-32 became the first (there's that word again!) fighter squadron to release multiple JDAMs.
Gypsy 104, F-14B Tomcat Gypsy 104, F-14B Tomcat
Gypsy 104, F-14B Tomcat Gypsy 104, F-14B Tomcat
Gypsy 104, F-14B Tomcat Pairs departure
Almost a scene from a carrier deck! Gypsy 101, F-14B Tomcat
During Iraqi Freedom, VF-32 flew daytime missions with the F-14Ds of VF-213 assigned to CVW-8 on the USS Theodore Roosevelt being part of the designated night air wing so therefore were to fly with at night and with NVGs - thanks to this day wing and night wing approach, VF-32 and VF-213 were able to provide almost non-stop 24-hour air support to the special forces. When CVW-3 and CVW-8 ended their combat operations in mid April, the twenty Tomcats on Truman and Roosevelt had used nearly 300 tonnes of ordnance - VF-32 went to war with just fourteen crews who had managed to chalk up 275 combat sorties with 1247 hours in the air and had used 118 JDAMs, nearly 250 LGBs and more than a thousand rounds of 20mm HE incendiary rounds. Perhaps even more eye opening is the effort that the VF-32 personnel put in - their "in the background" work meant that they managed a 100% sortie completion rate. Whilst out in the Persian Gulf VF-32 also participated in NEON FALCON - an annual Bahraini exercise - and conducted various air-to-air missions against Bahraini F-5s and F-16s of the 1st TFW from Shaikh Isa AB. On their way home, personnel got some well deserved time ashore in France, Italy, Greece, Slovenia and Portsmouth.

CVW-3 returned home in May 2003 but not before VF-32 tried something not attempted since 1972 and never on an operational squadron - the launching of six AIM-54 Phoenix missiles. From one jet. Declared a success, the single jet managed to launch five of the six missiles. After returning home, Truman went to NGNN in August for a six month long upgrade/repair program before VF-32s final cruise in October 2004. This cruise, taking the Truman back to the Middle East to support OEF/OIF was sadly VF-32s last ever cruise with the Tomcat. During the four months in theatre, VF-32 typically flew eight "in country" missions every day with each mission lasting no less than 5.5 hours and needing three trips to the USAF KC-135s and KC-10s for refuelling. Each section (one VF-32 F-14B and one VMFA-115 F/A-18C) was assigned a specific area of Iraq and were mostly working with Marine ground units, with the odd Army unit too. If needed, the ground units asked VF-32 to take a closer look at "interesting" subjects with the onboard sensor systems or to perform low-level flypasts for a show of force. The last resort was to drop ordnance - and in 1,120 missions, of which 413 were "combat", totalling more than 3,000 hours flightime just 21 tonnes of ordnance (each jet usually carried two 500lb GBU-12 Paveway II LGBs plus the Vulcan cannon) was dropped on Iraqi positions. Their deployment meant they were in theatre in the lead-up to the first ever democratic Iraqi elections for more than 50 years and to help encourage people out to vote, missions often meant there was quite a bit of low flying over Iraqi villages to let them know there was still a coalition presence.

Gypsy 105, F-14B Tomcat Gypsy 115, F-14B Tomcat
Cats don't fly without the personnel on the ground Gypsy 101, F-14B Tomcat
Gypsy 105, F-14B Tomcat Gypsy 104, F-14B Tomcat
Gypsy 104, F-14B Tomcat Gypsy 103, F-14B Tomcat
As CVW-8s VF-31 and VF-213 were at sea on the Roosevelt, Tomcat participation at the NAS Oceana 2005 show fell solely on the shoulders of The Swordsmen; the VF-101 retro jet (AD-160) was to be used for the Sunday display but officially VF-101 The Grim Reapers had been disbanded on the Thursday before the show. It's safe to say the Gypsies did themselves proud - the often overlooked maintainers ensured jets were available and in good condition for their "Final Gypsy Roll". For the very last time ever, Oceana saw four F-14s in the Fleet Flyby and Airfield Attack - plus the last EVER F-14 Tacdemo and without the help of VF-32, Oceana would not have had any flying Tomcats. A VF-32 linejet (AC-104) was the mount of Rocco and Smokin' Joe on Saturday with VF-101s retro jet getting the honours on Sunday. Sadly VF-32s retro jet, Gypsy 112, remained on the flight line and didn't make it into the show proper. Almost as soon as the show was over, that was pretty much it as far as VF-32 go. AC-112 was sent to AMARC and various other airframes were sent to numerous musuems.
Unlike most other squadrons that have moved onto the new Super Hornet, The Swordsmen have the luxury of being able to transition at their home base of NAS Oceana thanks to VFA-106 Gladiators - the sole East Coast Hornet/Super Hornet Fleet Replacement Squadron. Previously, transitioning units have had to temporarily move to NAS Lemoore in California to train under VFA-122 - and often just after returning home from a stressing six month cruise. Starting last month, VF-32 aircrew were split into two classes and they began (the second class started their course two weeks after the first) a four month long intensive Category 2 training syllabus at VFA-106 (Category 2 is for fleet experienced crews, Category 1 would be for aircrews that have never been in a fleet squadron). During the course, the aircrews are expected to have 176.2 hours of "classroom" time, 82.3 hours in the simulators and 220.9 hours flying time in VFA-106 jets. The ordnance, avionics and electrician shops will get a longer, 6 month course - everyone else gets 3~4 months. In late spring, the squadron will reform from their various courses and achieve "safe for flight" status which proves they can operate independently - they can they receive their full complement of their own jets and once again do whatever needs to be done, whenever it needs to be done.
Gypsy 100, F-14B Tomcat Gypsy 102, F-14B Tomcat
Gypsy 100, F-14B Tomcat Gypsy 114 & Gypsy 103, F-14B Tomcat
Deus et Patria
The author would like to thank LT Ashley "Ciao" Augostini for her great help in compiling this article.

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