USS JOHN C. STENNIS (NNS) -- The last two Category 1 S-3B Viking pilots successfully completed their carrier qualification (CQ) aboard USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) in March, marking the last initial CQ in an S-3 aircraft.
Officers and crew members from Sea Control Squadron (VS) 41 "Shamrocks" embarked aboard Stennis during a scheduled underway period to qualify their last two Category 1 pilots, new pilots who have never flown in the fleet before. This is the last milestone in their training before entering the fleet.
"This is a significant event [for the pilots] because it basically marks the end of their training and the beginning of their aviation careers," said Lt. Josh Smith, lead landing signals officer (LSO) with VS-41.
To qualify, the pilots had to complete two day and two night sessions of flight operations, which included a combination of touch-and-gos and successful traps, or landings, aboard Stennis. Pilots were graded by VS-41 LSOs for acceptable performance in such areas as lining up the aircraft on approach and glide slope.
"I think this was special," said Lt. j.g. Michael Huntsman, one of the two last Category 1 S-3 pilots. "Being one of the last pilots to do this kind of puts a lot of responsibility on me to be a better pilot. It's like we're in the spotlight."
Huntsman explained that he spent the five weeks leading up to this CQ in a rigorously-paced training regimen, which included landing in the carrier box, a designated part of an airstrip designed to look and feel like an aircraft carrier. He added that it is almost as tough to land in the carrier box as it was on the carrier.
"[The CQ] went above average," said Lt. Cmdr. Carlos Monreal, a naval flight officer with VS-41. Monreal flew on board alongside one of the two qualifying pilots. "The pilot I flew with did great, rock solid. I think he'll make a great pilot in the fleet."
Monreal explained how qualifying on an aircraft carrier is basically the biggest milestone in a young aviator's career.
"The place to be able to land is on a ship," he said, "and these guys proved they could do it."
For VS-41 personnel, this puts them one step closer to their disestablishment, which is scheduled for September.
"This is sort of bittersweet because it's beginning to show the end of our command isn't that far away," added Monreal, who plans to take orders to Iraq filling a shore billet when the squadron disestablishes. Monreal explained that VS-41, the only S-3 training squadron in the fleet, will continue to work with fleet pilots for the remainder of its time.
The rest of the S-3 squadrons won't be that far behind VS-41's disestablishment. By 2009, the rest of the Navy's Viking squadrons are scheduled to disestablish due to the S-3's missions being replaced by newer aircraft. Two of its main missions, in-flight refueling and reconnaissance, are being effectively replaced by F/A-18 Hornet aircraft.
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