Touchdown Aviation
military aviation photography - reports - publications - video
‘The Jolly Rogers’ - Pirates of the East Coast
 
F/A-18F Hornet - 166615/AG-205 - VFA-103 - United States Navy   F/A-18F Hornet - 166616/AG-206 - VFA-103 - United States Navy   F/A-18F Hornet - 166620/AG-200 - VFA-103 - United States Navy   F/A-18F Hornet - 166619/AG-204 - VFA-103 - United States Navy
 

Strike Fighter Squadron One Zero Three

Words and Photography by Stuart Freer who was given the privilege to visit VFA-103 at its home, Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia, on the East Coast of the United States.

The Jolly Rogers have always worn some of the most colorful and recognizable squadron markings in the world. White skull and crossbones on all black tails, with gold band fin tips, and black bands with gold V’s running down sides of the forward fuselage.

The unit’s prized mascot is a set of skull and crossbones enclosed in a glass case. “Passing the bones” from the departing Wing Commander to the incoming is a time honored tradition. These bones are supposedly the remains of Ensign Jack Ernie of VF-17 who was killed during the Okinawa invasion during World War II, as his aircraft crashed; he made one last radio transmission he asked “to be remembered with the skull and cross-bones”. According to some sources, Jack Ernie’s family later presented the squadron with the set of skull & crossbones and asked the squadron to fulfill Ernie’s last wish. According to VFA-103’s Public Relations Officer pilots from other squadrons at Oceana often attempt to ‘kidnap’ the bones and ransom them back as part of friendly rivalry. The Jolly Rogers were established on the 1st January 1943 at NAS Norfolk, as VF-17. It was the second Navy unit to receive the F4U-1 Corsair. The squadron wanted any insignia based upon the Corsair name hence the skull and crossbones were chosen, a break from the trend of cartoon inspired characters popular among other squadrons at the time. The original design was developed by Harry Hollmeyer who became an ace fighter pilot.

The Navy still deemed the F4U to be ‘unfit’ for carrier service aboard USS Bunker Hill (CV-17), so the squadron became a land based unit at Ondonga in the Solomon Islands during its deployment to the South Pacific theatre. VF-17 finished its combat duties on May 10th, 1944 and a number of pilots were reassigned. A number of personal from VF-17 formed a new F4U-1D Corsair unit designated VF-84 on May 1st, 1944. A request was made to allow VF-84 to carry the ‘Jolly Rogers’ name, but this was denied by the Navy and they became the ‘Wolfgang’.

VF-84 request for the name and insignia of the ‘Jolly Rogers’ was finally approved on April 1st, 1960. The unit at the time was flying the F-8C Crusader they never carried the skull and crossbones motif, the markings were first introduced to the F-4B Phantom II in 1964.

F/A-18F Hornet - 166620/AG-200 - VFA-103 - United States Navy
 
F/A-18F Hornet - 166620/AG-200 - VFA-103 - United States Navy   F/A-18F Hornet - 166620/AG-200 - VFA-103 - United States Navy   F/A-18F Hornet - 166611/AG-211 - VFA-103 - United States Navy   F/A-18F Hornet - 166616/AG-206 - VFA-103 - United States Navy
 
F/A-18F Hornet - 166620/AG-200 - VFA-103 - United States Navy

In May 1965 VF-84 embarked on a seven month deployment aboard the aircraft carrier ‘USS Independence’ in the Gulf of Tonkin and flew 1507 combat missions amassing over 2200 flight hours over North and South Vietnam.

 In 1967 the unit transitioned to the F-4J Phantom II the unit flew this mark of aircraft for six years until reverting back to the F-4B for a short period in 1973 until converting to the F-4N at the end of 1974.

In the summer of 1976 the ‘Jolly Rogers’ retired its F-4N’s for the F-14A Tomcat, after the crew completed training on the new aircraft which took 10 months, VF-84 embarked on it’s first cruise onboard the aircraft carrier the USS Nimitz in December 1977. In January 1980 the USS Nimitz was diverted from Mediterranean to ‘Gonzo Station’ in the Arabian Sea in response to the Iranian hostage crisis. The carrier was used for the failed rescue attempt resulting in the loss of two RH-53D Sea Stallions.

 VF-84 were the first squadron to deploy (TARPS) Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System operationally during August 1981, pioneering the use of the Tomcat as a photo reconnaissance aircraft, a role previously performed by the RF-8 Crusader & RA-5 Vigilanties. The squadrons last cruise with the USS Nimitz lasted from December 1986 until June 1987. In October of that year VF-84 was deployed with the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

In December 1990 the USS Theodore Roosevelt was called to join the USS Ranger and the USS Midway in the Persian Gulf in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Early in January 1991 the Roosevelt joins the USS America in the Red Sea. Both carriers are informed that Desert Storm would commence on the 16th January 1991, the Roosevelt was ordered to join the Ranger and the Midway back in the Persian Gulf. VF-84 flew (CAP) Combat Air Patrols in Eastern Iraq during the air offensive and Central Iraq during the ground offensive.

Other duties included escorting the air wings strike aircraft and performing TARPS missions to assess bomb damage. In total 468 combat missions recorded after ceasefire. After the war had ended VF-84 flew missions into Iraq as part of Operation Provide Comfort this included dangerous infrared TARPS missions at very low altitude over Northern Iraq under the cover of darkness.

In total 111 sorties were recorded during this operation before the Roosevelt was relieved by the USS Forrestal in June 1991.

 
F/A-18F Hornet - 166615/AG-205 - VFA-103 - United States Navy   F/A-18F Hornet - 166620/AG-200 - VFA-103 - United States Navy   F/A-18F Hornet - 166613/AG-203 - VFA-103 - United States Navy   F/A-18F Hornet - 166619/AG-204 - VFA-103 - United States Navy
 

It wasn’t long before the Jolly Rogers were to be seeing combat action again. In March 1993 VF-84 were deployed again on the Theodore Roosevelt to fly critical TARPS reconnaissance missions during Operation Deny Flight, supplying information about Bosnian Serb positions around Sarajevo. At the same time the squadron also supported Operation Southern Watch enforcing the no-fly zone over southern Iraq. The unit returned to NAS Oceana in September 1993.

Due to budget cuts and the end of the Cold War, the Navy disestablished a number of Squadrons and VF-84 being one of them. The unit was retired on the 1st October 1995. Not wanting the Jolly Rogers insignia to disappear VF-103 the ‘Sluggers’ requested to adopt the Jolly Rogers name and insignia, also in the same year VF-103 becomes the first unit to conduct the feasibility testing of the US Air Force’s LANTIRN (Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night) targeting pod that led to Tomcat community adopting the LANTIRN. With this system the Tomcat had an accurate, designation and targeting capability for delivering laser guided bombs.

In 2002, VF-103 was deployed on board the USS George Washington to the Persian Gulf and conducted missions in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Southern Watch.

The unit returned to the Persian Gulf with what would be its final Tomcat cruise with the USS John F. Kennedy on the 10th July 2004 and participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The squadron saw more action than any other Tomcat unit deployed in the area after the end of the war. In December 2004, VF-103 returned to NAS Oceana after a six month cruise.

The unit gave up its F-14B Tomcats and began transitioning to the F/A-18F Super Hornet in February 2005, the unit was also re-designated VFA-103. The single seat F/A-18E and two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornets carry over the name and design concept of the original F/A-18, but have been extensively redesigned. The Super Hornet has a new, 25% larger airframe, more powerful GE F414 engines based on F/A-18's F404, and upgraded avionics suite.The unit achieved ready status with the new aircraft on the 14th February 2006 and was deployed on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (IKE) for the first time. Talking to the aircrew they say they love flying the new model Hornet referring to it as a ‘Bug with Bones’


Stuart Freer would like to thank the US Navy and all staff at VFA-103 for there help and co-operation in preparing this article, especially to the squadrons PAO.

F/A-18F Hornet - 166620/AG-200 - VFA-103 - United States Navy
 
F/A-18F Hornet - 166622/AG-202 - VFA-103 - United States Navy   F/A-18F Hornet - 166619/AG-204 - VFA-103 - United States Navy   F/A-18F Hornet - 166619/AG-204 - VFA-103 - United States Navy   F/A-18F Hornet - 166616/AG-206 - VFA-103 - United States Navy
 
F/A-18F Hornet - 166620/AG-200 - VFA-103 - United States Navy
 
Bookmark and Share