We hear them more often than we see them, depending on weather and altitude, but their sound is always unmistakable, approaching like a rising wall of power and supersonic speed that, yes, interrupts the occasional phone call, but never fails to impress.
Sure, we all look up when we see the fighter jets cutting across the sky, independently or in pairs, their supersonic speed outrunning their sound. And after a few years of residency here, we all draft our own improvised, though perhaps less than accurate, version of what these planes and their pilots are doing in the blue sky above our island chain.
But what do we really know about the F-5 Tiger-II fighter jets and their pilots that are a permanent feature in Key West’s backyard at Boca Chica Field and Naval Air Station Key West?
“I’ve heard people say the craziest things about what we do here,” said Cmdr. Matt Pearce, public affairs officer for the resident adversary squadron at Naval Air Station Key West. “One person swore we were practicing dropping bombs. I swear that’s not the case. Never. Ever. Ever.”
VFC-111 is the home team around here. Except they play the bad guys.
As an adversary squadron, the pilots of VFC-111 are the instructors who play the enemy during crucial air-to-air combat training.
The squadron acquired the moniker Sun Downers when established during World War II, given its commitment to downing Japanese planes, with their giant sun insignias.
But let’s be real, my fellow children of the ’80s. Unless we’ve served in the military, we learned everything we know about “air combat maneuvering — dogfighting,” from the movie “Top Gun.”
So to put it in familiar terms, VFC-111 pilots are Viper and Jester, seasoned and expert mentors challenging the aviators they train and presenting new situations for the them to handle.
The Keys Weekly recently caught up with Cmdr. Pearce, who showed us around Boca Chica airfield, their jet hangar, their “ready room” for pre- and post-flight briefings, and their classrooms, complete with those miniature models of jets attached to sticks so pilots can twist, turn and invert them, mimicking aerial maneuvers in a classroom before they’re in the air.
The VFC-111 instructors fly their F-5 Tiger-IIs against F-22s, F/A-18 Super Hornets, F-22 Raptors and other fighter jets from other squadrons that visit NASKW, usually for two weeks at a time, training with VFC-111 and taking advantage of Key West’s flight-friendly weather and conveniently located air space, said Pearce, who owns a home, and is raising his kids, in Key West.
I had every intention of conducting a professional interview with Pearce, taking notes and asking intelligent questions while zipping around the airfield with him on a golf cart.
But then, something happens and our “Top Gun” influence kicks in.
As surely as someone of our generation will sing the name “Roxanne” in the same shrill voice as the Police song, someone else will make “Top Gun” references when touring a naval air station.
There’s the requisite, “Negative, Ghost Rider, the pattern is full,” among plenty of others.
I won’t deny it. I was that guy a few weeks ago. Let’s just say my enthusiasm eclipsed my professional intentions for an hour or so.
Thankfully, Pearce is a patient instructor and an enthusiastic tour guide, eager to let the Keys community know who VFC-111 is and what they do just up the road.
For example, the pilots of VFC-111 this month have grown mustaches and are donating the money raised to fight prostate cancer.
Many of these guys live here. Most are reservists, no longer on active duty. While some have made Key West and the Lower Keys their permanent homes and get involved in the community, others commute from as far away as Salt Lake City, Utah to pursue their passion as fighter pilots and train the next generation of young lions in the fleet, said CDR Derek “Baffle” Ashlock, commanding officer of VFC-111.
They also happen to have one of the coolest jobs on the planet.
(Go ahead, you know you can’t resist. Start singing Kenny Loggins. “Revvin’ up your engine/ Listen to her howlin’ roar/ Metal under tension/ Beggin’ you to touch and go/ Highway to the danger zone….”)
Godspeed, guys, and thank you for your service.