Last of the Legacies

 

Strike Fighter Squadron 34 (VFA-34), also known as the "Blue Blasters", is a United States Navy F/A-18C Hornet strike fighter squadron stationed at Naval Air Station Oceana. As of November 2018, they are a part of Carrier Air Wing 2 and are attached to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. Their tail code is NE and their radio call sign is "Joker".

The squadron’s first insignia was approved for use by VF-20 during World War II, and was a "Joker" breaking out of a deck of cards carrying a machine gun. This insignia was selected by the squadron because the young and inexperienced pilots in the squadron were referred to as the "Jokers". It was approved by Chief of Naval Operations in March 1944. The next insignia adopted by the squadron was the outline of a human skull, approved by the CNO in February 1946. Superimposed on the nose of a skull was a human skeleton with the arms holding paddles that became the eyes of the skull, while the teeth were represented by the word “Fighting 20.” In June of 1949, the CNO approved another modification to the squadron insignia which embellished the skull design.

This insignia was in use from 1949 until the squadron’s disestablishment in 1969. In 1957 the squadron adopted their present nickname, taking inspiration from their blue tail colors and their nuclear weapon delivery capability; hence the name "Blue Blasters." When the third VA-34 was established in 1970, it adopted the insignia and Blue Blasters nickname used by the previous VA-34 squadron (the second VA-34). On May 10, 1999 the CNO approved a modification to the squadron’s insignia tailoring the design to the strike fighter community.

Through its storied history, three distinct U.S. Navy squadrons have been designated VA-34. The first squadron to hold the VA-34 designation was in 1948; this squadron was redesignated VA-35 in 1950. The second VA-34 was established in 1943 and was disestablished in 1969. The third VA-34, established in 1970, was later redesignated VFA-34 and exists to the present day. Less than a year after disestablishment of the second VA-34, a new Blue Blaster squadron was established at NAS Oceana, Virginia, on January 1, 1970 as the Atlantic Fleet’s sixth A-6E Intruder squadron. The actual establishment ceremony was conducted at NAS Oceana on 17 April 1970.

In September 1970, VA-34 embarked aboard USS John F. Kennedy as part of Carrier Air Wing One for a short at-sea period prior to its scheduled November deployment to the Mediterranean Sea. However, while en route to the Caribbean, the ship was ordered to deploy to the Mediterranean after Syria invaded Jordan. The squadron returned home in March 1971 from this unscheduled deployment, only one year old, but already in possession of the Meritorious Unit Commendation. In August 1971, VA-34 received the Battle "E" award as the Atlantic Fleet's top A-6 squadron. In September 1972, a squadron A-6 Intruder conducted cross-deck operations on HMS Ark Royal while operating in the Norwegian Sea. Due to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, VA-34 and USS John F. Kennedy departed the Norwegian Sea in October 1973 and re-entered the Mediterranean, conducting surveillance operations south of Crete.

VA-34 deployed aboard USS America, in August 1982 for an eight-week North Atlantic cruise. The squadron subsequently made deployments to the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean in 1982 and 1984. In September 1985 while deployed aboard USS America to the North Atlantic, the squadron conducted flight operations from the carrier while it operated within the Vestfjorden, a Norwegian fjord.

On March 24, 1986, Libyan missiles were fired at U.S. Navy forces operating in the Gulf of Sidra. As a result of this hostile act, the squadron participated in retaliatory strikes Operation Prairie Fire against Libya by the U.S. 6th Fleet forces in the area. VA-34’s A-6E Intruders, operating from USS America, attacked and damaged a Libyan FACM Class La Combattante IIa G-class fast attack missile craft with an AGM-84 Harpoon missile marking the first combat employment of Harpoon. On the night of April 14, 1986, the squadron conducted a low-level, high-speed attack against targets at the Benina airfield and military barracks in Benghazi, Libya as part of Operation El Dorado Canyon.

In October 1986, the squadron detached from Carrier Air Wing One and joined Carrier Air Wing Seven aboard USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, deploying in February 1988 for an extended Mediterranean deployment. The squadron participated in operations off the Libyan Coast and returned to NAS Oceana in August 1988.

The squadron's deployment in 1990 featured integration of night vision goggles and Standoff Land Attack Missile capability into their A-6Es. In 1990, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower completed her seventh Mediterranean deployment. The deployment became a commemorative event in the worldwide 'Dwight D. Eisenhower Centennial,' celebrating the 100th anniversary of the late President's birth. During D-Day anniversary ceremonies off the coast of Normandy, President Eisenhower's son John Eisenhower and D-Day veterans embarked on the ship, while Carrier Air Wing Seven conducted a memorial flyover of the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach. In August 1990, VA-34 flew missions from the Red Sea in support of Operation Desert Shield, the buildup of American and Allied forces to counter a threatened invasion of Saudi Arabia by Iraq.

The squadron returned home in September 1990 and returned to Southwest Asia in September 1991. The squadron returned to NAS Oceana in April 1992. The squadron's next deployment was from May to November 1994, embarked on USS George Washington for her maiden voyage. In June 1994, the squadron commemorated the 50th Anniversary of D-Day with a "missing man" formation over Omaha Beach, which was televised worldwide by CNN. VA-34 was awarded the Commander, Naval Air Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet Battle "E" for 1994 and 1995. VA-34 departed in January 1996 aboard USS George Washington for their last A-6E Intruder deployment. They flew in support of Operation Decisive Endeavor over Bosnia and Herzegovina and Operation Southern Watch over Southern Iraq. Typical missions included close air support assisting US and United Nations troops on the ground.

On September 30, 1996, Attack Squadron 34 was redesignated Strike Fighter Squadron 34 (VFA-34) and returned once again to NAS Cecil Field, Florida. The squadron immediately began the transition to the F/A-18 Hornet. In June 1998, VFA-34 deployed aboard USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in support of Operation Deliberate Force and Operation Southern Watch. The squadron returned to NAS Cecil Field in December 1998. In March 1999, the squadron conducted a homeport shift from NAS Cecil Field to NAS Oceana.

The squadron embarked on the USS George Washington in June 2000 for deployment to the Mediterranean Sea, Arabian Sea, and Persian Gulf in support of Operations Southern Watch and Deliberate Forge and returned returned to NAS Oceana in December. Upon their return, the squadron was awarded the Rear Admiral Clarence Wade McClusky Award as the premier attack squadron in the U.S. Navy, and the Commander, Naval Air Force U.S. Atlantic Fleet Battle E Award as the finest East Coast Strike Fighter Squadron.

The squadron embarked on USS George Washington in June 2002 for another deployment to the Mediterranean Sea, Arabian Sea, and Persian Gulf in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Southern Watch, returning to NAS Oceana in December 2002. VFA-34 returned to USS John F. Kennedy for her last combat cruise in 2004, deploying to the Mediterranean Sea/Persian Gulf in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

In March 2005, VFA-34 became operationally attached to Carrier Air Wing Two (CVW-2), deploying aboard the west coast carrier USS Abraham Lincoln for Operations Valiant Shield and Foal Eagle 2006. Between March 24-31, 2006, during Foal Eagle 2006 exercises, VFA-2, VFA-34, VFA-137, and VFA-151 from CVW-2 teamed with U.S. Air Force aircraft from the 18th Wing based at Kadena Air Base to provide combat air patrols and coordinated bombing runs via the exercise’s Combined Air Operations Center. The squadron returned home to NAS Oceana in August 2006. In March 2008 the squadron again deployed on USS Abraham Lincoln. Reporting to the 5th Fleet Operating Area, VFA-34 launched strikes over Iraq and Afghanistan, returning home in October 2008.

After an extended stand down period, the squadron returned to USS Abraham Lincoln for deployment back to the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman from September 2010 to March 2011. In 2012, the squadron won the Battle "E" award for excellence during a period of sustained readiness and combat operations. When the Abraham Lincoln began its Refueling and Complex Overhaul in 2013, CVW-2 was reassigned to the USS Ronald Reagan. The wing made only a short deployment aboard Ronald Reagan during exercise RIMPAC between June and August 2014, before the carrier was stationed in Japan. CVW-2 then accompanied USS George Washington for her voyage around South America from September to December 2015.

In 2016, CVW-2 and VFA-34 were reassigned to USS Carl Vinson. The wing made its next deployment to the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean aboard Carl Vinson from January to June 2017. On January 5, 018, VFA-34 left San Diego aboard the Carl Vinson for another scheduled deployment to the Western Pacific. This deployment marked the final Legacy Hornet deployment for the squadron and the final Legacy Hornet deployment from any Naval fleet squadron.

In December 2018, VFA-34 sent five jets to Philadelphia International Airport to take part in the 119th playing of the Army-Navy Game.  The lead jet was flown by the Commanding Officer of VFA-34, Cmdr. Will Mathis, USNA Class of 2000.  The wing aircraft were piloted by, Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Kilcline, USNA Class of 2008, Lt. Casey Murdock, USNA Class of 2012, and Lt. Charles Johnson, USNA Class of 2013.  Zinger Aviation Media was allowed on the ramp at Philadelphia International Airport to photograph the five jets that came into PHL; Cmdr. Kilcline stated that as the last of the Legacy Hornet squadrons, the squadron is proud to have been able to support American interests around the world and will continue to do so upon completion of the transition to the F/A-18E Super Hornet, which will take place in 2019.  The squadron will also be partaking in a ceremony in early 2019 to celebrate over twenty-two years of flying the Hornet.  The remaining jets will most likely find their ways into Marine Corps squadrons.

Photos in the slideshow below were taken in the fall of 2018.  Special thanks to the entire crew for allowing the ramp photo shoot to take place.  Apologies for the large copyrights in each photo - this is necessary in this day and age where photos are widely stolen and passed along as if they are one's own.