The Disestablishment and a Brief History of the VMAQT-1 Banshees

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Oxford Dictionary defines the word “disestablish” as: dis·es·tab·lish, [disəˈstabliSH] vb. “deprive (an organization, especially a country's national church) of its official status.” In military aviation, a disestablishment likely means that the squadron’s current operations, staffing, equipment and/or mission has finished its tasks, and that organization is disbanding. It also means that the heritage and accomplishments of the unit is no longer actively displayed. At the recent 2016 MCAS Cherry Point Air Show, those in attendance at the Friday evening event got a rare privilege to watch how a squadron is “disestablished”, with the appropriate pomp and honor that recognized Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Training Squadron 1 (VMAQT-1) and its past associated squadrons. VMAQT-1 has stood down, leaving the Marines with three Tactical Electronic Warfare squadrons equipped with the last Grumman EA-6B Prowlers in U.S. military service. The unit’s lineage took a circuitous route to its recent status as the training squadron for all of the Marine Corps’ EA-6B crewmembers. Originally established as Marine Composite Squadron 1 (VMC-1) on September 15, 1952, it provided airborne warning and countermeasures support for Marine ground and air operations during the Korean War, using AD-4 and AD-5Q versions of the piston-engined Douglas Skyraider. One VMC-1 crew, pilot Major George H. Linnemeier and crewmember CWO Vernon S. Kramer, earned an aerial victory over a Polikarpov Po-2 biplane during the war. The squadron remained in the Korean theatre until 1955, when it moved to MCAS Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii and merged with another aviation unit, Marine Photographic Squadron One (VMJ-1), to form the newly-named Marine Composite Reconnaissance Squadron One (VMCJ-1).

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While in Hawaii, VMCJ-1 wound up operating two types of jets in the early 1960s, the Douglas F-3D (later EF-10B) Skynight electronic countermeasures jet, and the camera-equipped Vought RF-8A Crusader (sometimes called the “Photo Crusader”). The Crusaders were often deployed as wing assets aboard various aircraft carriers, while the Skynights were mainly land-based. With the advent of the Vietnam War, the Crusaders were deployed aboard various Seventh Fleet carriers in and around the Gulf of Tonkin while the Skynights were moved from their initial base at Iwakuni, Japan to Da Nang Air Base, to be closer to their areas of operation. The EF-10Bs played important roles in B-52 “Rolling Thunder” bombing missions during the 1960s, using their own “Fog Bound” mission names. As an example, during March, 1966, VMCJ-1’s RF-8 and EF-10 aircraft flew 267 missions totaling 600.6 hours of flying time, and unfortunately lost one aircrew, 1st Lieutenant Alvin McPherson and 1st Lt. Brent Davis when their EF-10B was presumed shot down while taking part in a Rolling Thunder mission.

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By December, 1966, the last RF-8A Photo Crusader was exchanged for new McDonnell Douglas RF-4Bs, and Grumman “Electronic Intruder” EA-6As were coming on line with the squadron, supplementing and then replacing the aging EF-10Bs - of which only eight remained at the end of the month. Operations were now land-based from Da Nang. For a number of months prior to December, there were four main types of aircraft being operated, which must have presented maintenance and logistical nightmares for their maintainers! On December 2-3rd, a maximum-effort “Chivas Regal” mission was flown with nine ECM jets – three EA-6As and six EF-10Bs – the largest Marine ECM effort to date. A week and a half later, another large-scale effort, code named “Rusty Nail” was flown with an equal amount of jets and their crews. During the month, according to VMCJ-1 records, crews flying RF-4B and RF-8A jets provided some 36,060 feet of photographic film which was developed. EF-10B and EA-6A ECM crews jammed “280 Firecan, 27 Fansong, and two Crosslot radars” and reported the operation of “58 Firecan, 9 Fansong, 8 Rock/Stone Cake, 12 Flatface, and 11 Crosslot” radar sites/antennas during the month. 376 combat and 28 non-combat missions were flown amounting to 751 hours during combat missions, and an additional 31.3 hours spent on test flights and aircraft ferry flights (as the RF-8s moved back to the U.S.). After ground forces moved out of Vietnam, VMCJ-1 split into multiple Detachments, and ultimately two squadrons again… Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron Two (VMAQ-2) and Marine Photo Reconnaissance Squadron Three (VMFP-3). VMFP-3 moved from Hawaii to MCAS El Toro, California, while VMAQ-2 moved to MCAS Cherry Point NC. VMAQ-2 “Detachment A” became carrier-borne again, and operated their EA-6A Electric Intruders in the Pacific Ocean areas of operation. In 1977, the squadron transitioned into the EA-6B Prowler, and its Pacific presence, normally a six month rotation, became known as “Detachment X-ray”. Detachments “Yankee” and “Zulu” operated elsewhere, while other Prowlers remained in Cherry Point. During Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, Det. X-ray’s Pacific tour was extended past a year due to VMAQ-2’s additional deployment in the Middle East. Close to 500 operational sorties were flown by the latter crews during the war.

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After Desert Storm, VMAQ-2 continued to field three detachments. X-ray was deployed at MCAS Iwakuni Japan when another administrative change occurred… On July 1, 1992, all Marine electronic warfare elements – whether it was a squadron or one of their detachments, were concentrated into three active and one Reserve electronic warfare squadrons. Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron One (VMAQ-1) was commissioned, renaming Detachment X-ray in Japan. Home base would still be MCAS Cherry Point NC. As a Fleet Squadron, VMAQ-1 was deployed to most major hot spots in the world during the next two decades, garnering many unit awards and citations. The squadron’s emblem, a Banshee, represents a legendary woman who appears to announce an impending death, in Irish folklore. The words on the emblem, in Gaelic, are: “Tairngreacht Bas” – or “Death Foretold”, are fitting for a squadron whose missions includes reconnaissance and the targeting of electronic emitters. In 2003, VMAQ-1 deployed to Saudi Arabia to take part in Operations Southern Watch and Iraqi Freedom, chalking up 1129 flight hours while flying 197 combat missions. Not only did the EA-6B operate against radars, but communications jamming had become a top priority. Several more large deployments occurred during the 2005 to 2011 timeframe, to places including Iraq and Afghanistan.

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The U.S. Navy began retiring their EA-6Bs as new EF-18G Growlers reached operational status in 2009. The Navy had provided all of the training for Marine Prowler squadrons, but were getting out of the EA-6B program rapidly. The Marines soon needed an organization of their own to train their people in the ways of the Prowler, since it was planned to operate EA-6Bs through 2019, when the final jets are slated to retire. On June 14, 2013, the Marines re-designated VMAQ-1 as Marine Electronic Warfare Training Squadron One (VMAQT-1), to provide full training for the final three Marine Prowler squadrons. By March, 2014, VMAQT-1 was in the air, training their first flying class. The planned drawdown of the Marines’ EA-6B fleet began with VMAQT-1 in 2016, and will follow with the other three squadrons being disestablished, one per year, through 2019. Instead of replacing the EA-6B airframe with another jet, the Marines took a different approach, according to Marine Lt. Maida Zheng, MCAS Cherry Point PAO. “MAGTF EW” (Marine Air-Ground Task Force Electronic Warfare) is a digital interoperability strategy that makes most vehicles in the air and on the ground collectors of signals; any information that is collected will be shared across a wide range of users. The days of one or two collectors (read: EA-6Bs) operating over a relatively small area are over; the Marine Aviation Plan 2016 states that this “process is a significant paradigm shift…”. The Marine Corps will switch to a “distributed, platform-agnostic strategy – where every platform contributes/functions as a sensor, shooter and sharer – to include EW”. Unmanned, plus fixed and rotary-winged aircraft, and ground-based platforms will all share information, both incoming and outgoing.

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As sunset fittingly began to cast a warm glow in the North Carolina skies, a color guard carrying the American flag and the unit battle color of the squadron, and a formation of Marines from VMAQT-1, assembled in front of the spectator stands.

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An official account of the squadron’s lineage and history was read, and a trio of EA-6B Prowlers, in VMAQT-1 colors, flew a precise echelon formation as they passed in review in front of the assembled Marines and air show spectators. Then the official directive that disestablished Marine Tactical Electronic Training Squadron One, by the end of May 2016, was proclaimed. The three Prowlers returned to a formation break overhead, and landed.

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Then, two black sleeves were pulled over the rolled U.S. and unit flags, and the color guard and formation of Marines marched off of the ramp. The short but well-choreographed event was a somber ceremony, as the visible features of VMAQT-1 – the Marines, the jets, and the flags, were readied for disbandment. Luckily, accounts of the deeds of VMC-1, VMCJ-1, VMAQ-1, VMAQT-1 and their various Detachments and temporary assignments remain, through written and photographic history. Those interested in the history of these units won’t be “deprived” of that honor.

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Footnote: The VMAQT-1’s “color bird” was retired to the Hickory Air Museum, on May 14, 2016. Many thanks to the MCAS Cherry Point Public Affairs Officer Lt. Maida Zheng for explaining some of the new Marine MAGTF EW strategy to me, and allowing us great access for our photos. Thanks to all the Marine Public Affairs personnel who helped us during the weekend too!
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