VAW-117 Wallbangers CAG-bird seen over Fallon

Amongst the Carrier Air Wing Nine contingent during our visit, was Strike Fighter Squadron 14 (VFA-14) Tophatters, based at Naval Air Station Lemoore. A former F-14 Tomcat squadron; after the unit's final cruise with the Tomcat on board the USS Enterprise in support of Operation Southern Watch during 2001, the squadron moved to Lemoore and converted to the single-seat F/A-18E Super Hornet.

The squadron's primary role is air defence, and one of the unit's aircraft can be seen in the photo left, heading out of Fallon for a morning mission.

'Vigilantes'

During our time at Fallon we saw a number of aircraft using the Fallon Range Training Complex, with aircraft from Carrier Air Wing One, Carrier Air Wing Two, Carrier Air Wing Three, and Carrier Air Wing Eleven; together with a couple of EA-18G Growlers from VAQ-129, the Fleet Replacement Squadon based at NAS Whidbey Island in Washington state, which were transitting through on a fuel stop. So without any great detail, here's a few images of some of those aircraft.

'Bangor 71', a Grumman E-2D Hawkeye from VAW-117 heads out on an afternoon mission. The E-2D will control the airspace during a DACT training sortie over the Fallon Range Training Complex

Most people are aware that Carrier Air Wings deploy to NAS Fallon for a three-week period in the lead up to a cruise - a very important aspect in getting the Air Wing’s units together and preparing them for operations onboard the boat. What most people are not aware of though, is that having returned from their cruise, the Air Wing often complete a Refresher Course at Fallon – something the crews probably don’t enjoy that much after having been away from home for several months on board the ship, and I am sure this would have been the case with the crews from CVW-9 after a long seven month cruise.

From its beginnings as a WWII Army Air Corps airstrip in the early 1940s, Fallon has served many different roles throughout the years and now has over 3,000 active-duty personnel, civilian employees, and Department of Defense (DoD) contractors working in this relatively isolated arena, a little over an hour’s drive from the city of Reno. Jetwash Aviation Photos spent a day on the flightlines at Fallon to report on the latest developments, and to photograph a typical day's activity at this 'Carrier in the Desert'.

First up, using the callsigns 'Viking 21 and Viking 22' -  a couple of EA-18G Growlers from VAQ-129 at Whidbey Island

VFA-122's F/A-18F CAG-bird powers out of Fallon whilst on detachment from its home base at Lemoore

Carrier Air Wing Nine (CVW-9), which is attached to Carrier Strike Group 3 (CSG-3), was in residence at NAS Fallon during our visit, completing its last week of a three-week Refresher Course, following a seven-month cruise aboard the Nimitz-Class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72).

Having deployed 3rd January to 9th August 2022, CVW-9 was the first carrier strike group to deploy with a U.S. Marine Corps F-35C Lightning II squadron (VMFA-314) assigned. During its cruise, CVW-9 participated in dual carrier operations in the South China Sea with the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) Carrier

Tactical training forms an integral element of final workups prior to combat deployments, and Fallon is a prerequisite stop for all Carrier Air Wings during their final preparation prior to deployment on board the boat. An Air Wing (CVW) typically deploying to Fallon for a period of four weeks to conduct realistic warfare tactics, DACT, Close Air Support (CAS) and Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) training, both at day and at night. The ranges at Fallon provide targets on the ground and surface-to-air threats, with a multitude of electronic systems at their disposal, with real-time aerial movement imagery for mission debriefs.

Located in northern Nevada's high desert, Naval Air Station (NAS) Fallon has served many different roles throughout its lifecycle. Originally designed as a fall-back airstrip to counter missions from a Japanese strike on the United States' west coast, Fallon has evolved into a versatile and comprehensive training facility, known to aviators around the world as the pinnacle of air warfare training.

Home to the Fighting Saints of VFC-13; a detachment from Commander Strike Fighter Wing Pacific (CSFWP) known as the Desert Outlaws; and the Naval Air Warfare Development Center (NAWDC), Fallon continues to provide the U.S. Navy with a high-tech and realistic training complex for its naval aviators.

The SFTI course commences with 1-v-1 basic fighter manoeuvres (BFM), before moving through two-ship and four-ship, air-to-air missions, and onto a dedicated to air-to-ground tactics section. All phases are conducted at Fallon, except for BFM, which involves sending a detachment of students and instructors to either NAS Lemoore, NAS Oceana, or MCAS Miramar.

A couple of F/A-18F Super Hornets. Firstly, from VF-32 Swordsman, part of CVW-2, another east-coast based squadron from Oceana,

and a lovely CAG-bird from VFA-2 Bounty Hunters, also assigned to CVW-2

Although the F-5's time with VFC-13 will have drawn to a close by the time this article is published, NAS Fallon will continue to see Northrop's diminutive little Tiger II grace its ramps. An example being the F-5AT seen in the photo, right, wearing what is officially known as an 'Arctic White' camouflage, and operated by Tactical Air Support - an American defence contractor based out of Reno, Nevada.

Lockheed Martin F-16A/B

Fighting Falcon

A number of embargoed Block 15 F-16s originally destined for the Pakistan Air Force had been placed in storage at AMARG (309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group) at Davis Monthan, Arizona, which led to ten F-16As and four F-16Bs joining the NSAWC as it was then, in late 2002/early 2003. The F-16s, commonly known amongst the aviation community as 'Vipers', wear two distinct camouflage patterns, one being a sand/brown camo seen on the F-16A in the photo on the right, and a blue/grey scheme seen on the F-16B in the image below.

Legacy Hornets such as the F/A-18C seen above, will soon disappear from NAWDC ranks as an influx of Block 32 F-16C/D Vipers from ex-USAF stocks replaces them

Many of the ‘new’ Lockheed Martin F-16s were already in evidence at Fallon by October 2022, all of which appeared to be former 195th Fighter Squadron, Arizona Air National Guard (AZ-ANG) aircraft from Tucson - with large numbers of them sat on the ramp still wearing their AZ-ANG liveries. A change of command ceremony in early December 2022 officially introduced the Fighting Falcon into service, with F-16C #860279, coded AF-13, seen in the photo, right. Of note is that the aircraft has been repainted with the Have Glass V paint scheme. (Photo, U.S. Navy)

VFC-13 began operating the Northrop F-5 Tiger II in April 1996, when it transferred to Fallon from NAS Miramar, California, which was transferred to the U.S. Marines Corps. Without doubt the most recognisable F-5 operated by the unit is this black aircraft, which famously took part in the 1986 Tom Cruise film,

Strike Group, as well as in exercise Valiant Shield, and bilateral exercises Noble Fusion, and Jungle Warfare, culminating with the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise.

VFC-13 Fighting Saints is a U.S. Navy Reserve unit which has been flying a mix of Northrop F-5N/F Tiger II in the fleet support role for several years out of Fallon. The Fighter Composite Squadron (VFC) provides adversary training (Dissimilar Air Combat Training – DACT, including certain elements of the TOPGUN course) for Carrier Air Wings, the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Air Force, Air Force Reserve (AFRC), Air National Guard, and Canadian Air Force.

Commander Strike Fighter Wing Pacific

'Desert Outlaws'

FRTC - Premier Training Facility

is also a former F-14 Tomcat operator. Unlike the squadrons operating the E-model, VFA-41's role is fighter escort, reconnaissance, aerial refueling, close air support, air defense suppression and day/night precision strike, although of course the F-model still retains a very capable air defence capability as and when required - being able to 'fight its way in, and fight its way out'. Having decommissioned the Tomcat in December 2001, the Black Aces have been operating the Super Hornet since.

Tactical Air- 'We Serve Those Who Serve'

conjunction with Lockheed Martin, Tac-Air have introduced an advanced DRFM (digital radio frequency memory) jammer, and IRST, which is fully integrated into the Advanced Tigers’ fuselage.

'TopGun' - where it played the role of the imaginary Russian Mikoyan MiG-28 fighter. In April 2022, VFC-13 began to replace their Northrop F-5s with ex-Air National Guard Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Fighting Falcons, and by the end of 2022, all the F-5s will have been transferred to other units, with most already having departed to VFC-204 (formerly VFA-204) River Rattlers, at NAS/Joint Reserve Base (JRB) New Orleans, by the time of our visit in October 2022. Seen here during its last few days with VFC-13, the aircraft above already wears the markings of  its new operator.

Tac-Air has operated versions of the F-5 since 2013 – with the current F-5ATs equipped with a head-up display (HUD), hands-on throttle and stick (HOTAS), open architecture mission computers and tailored Operational Flight Programs that enable integration of advanced radar, and radar warning receiver (RWR) systems, IRSTS, datalinks, and simulated weapons employment. Whilst the F-5s flown by the U.S. Navy and U.S.

Marine Corps are considered to be 3rd Generation aircraft, Tac-Air’s existing and planned upgrades for their F-5s have seen the aircraft evolve into an advanced tactical aircraft with sensor/system capabilities on a par with many 4th Generation aircraft. 

the warm-down period. Supplementing the Navy’s adversary aircraft at Fallon was the private contractor, Tactical Air Support (Tac-Air), providing additional adversary training support with several of their Northrop F-5 Tigers IIs.

United States Navy through flight training, academic instructional classes, and direct operational and intelligence support. The command consists of more than 120 officers, 140 enlisted and 50 contract personnel, flying and maintaining a fleet of F/A-18C/D Hornets, F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, E/A-18G Growlers, F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-35C Lightning II, and MH-60S Seahawk helicopters.

​​Jetwash Aviation Photos

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Naval Air Station Fallon

“Train the way you fight - fight the way you train”

Commander Strike Fighter Wing Pacific Detachment (CSFWPD), known as the Desert Outlaws, was originally established in December 1983, with the first Strike Fighter maintenance personnel arriving from NAS Lemoore to establish a VFA-125 detachment. The mission was to maintain an operational aircrew training environment for a Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS), F/A-18 aircraft maintenance, and limited support for transient F/A-18 aircraft.

In March 1987, the east coast based VFA-106 also stood up a detachment at Fallon with VFA-125, the two combining

As the primary authority on training and tactics development, NAWDC provides training, assessment, aviation requirements recommendations, research and development for integrated strike, maritime and overland air superiority, strike fighter employment, airborne battle management, Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR), Close Air Support (CAS), and associated planning support systems. NAWDC is also responsible for the development, implementation, and administration of several courses, whilst also functioning as the Navy's point of contact for Air Combat Training, and the Fallon Range Training Complex (FRTC).

Established at NAS North Island in 1974, Airborne Command & Control Squadron 117 (VAW-117) has been operating the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye since 2020. An airborne early warning (AEW) squadron, The Wallbangers are based in Naval Base Ventura County, Point Mugu, California. Built by Northrop Grumman, the E-2D is a twin-engine, turbo-prop, all weather radar command and control platform, with a two-generation leap in radar sensor capability over the older E-2C version which it replaced. The crew consists of two pilots and three naval flight officers (NFO), and is a game changer for the carrier strike group.

McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet

Although the U.S. Navy retired its Legacy Hornets from frontline service back in February 2019, a number continued to serve with Reserve units and with NAWDC. However, the F/A-18C Hornet's days with NAWDC are now coming to an end, with just a small number of examples remaining with the unit. During its time with NAWDC, the F/A-18Cs have worn a variety of schemes, including a number of two-tone camouflage schemes similar to those worn by the F-16s.

The Naval Air Warfare Development Center (NAWDC)is the centre of excellence for naval aviation training and tactics development. NAWDC provides service to aircrews and Air Wings for the

Benefitting from more than 300 clear flying days per year, the Fallon Range Training Complex (FRTC), which is overseen by NAWDC, encompasses four bombing ranges and more than 10,200 square miles of airspace east of NAS Fallon; including a vast array of electronic systems supporting the squadrons, Air Wing and Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI -TOPGUN)

When NAWDC formed 11 July 1996, it consolidated three commands into a single command structure to enhance aviation training effectiveness. The Naval Strike Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) was amalgamated with the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) and the Carrier Airborne Early Warning Weapons School for E-2 Hawkeye aircrew (TOPDOME) – both of which had moved from NAS Miramar in 1993. The Seahawk Weapon School (SEAWOLF) was added in 1998 to provide tactical training for Navy SH-60/HH-60/MH-60 helicopters, and the Airborne Electronic Attack WeaponsSchool (HAVOC) for the EA-18G Growler was added in 2014.

A Fighting Saints F-5N Tiger II seen climbing out for an early morning mission over the Fallon complex

Several Tac-Air Northrop F-5ATs were operating as ‘Deck-Launch Interceptors’ against the CVW-9 aircraft at NAS Fallon during our visit. Tactical Air Support Inc. operates a fleet of 21 Northrop F-5AT (Advanced Tiger) aircraft, all of which are ex-Jordanian Air Force F-5E/Fs purchased by the company in 2017, which resulted in the company receiving a five-year contract to supply flying-hours to the U.S. Navy in 2018.

Some of the most advanced adversary aircraft that U.S. fighter pilots might face in combat have a passive jam-shoot capability with Infrared Search and Track (IRST) technology. So, in

Having originally acquired 22 single-seat F-16N, and four two-seat TF-16N Fighting Falcons for use in the adversary role back in 1988, the Navy later discovered several fatigue issues in the airframes, which led to the aircraft being retired after just 10 years of service. Despite the age of the aircraft originally destined for Pakistan, the F-16s continue to serve in an aggressor-training role, still able to provide a simulation capability of current threat aircraft in fighter combat mode. In line with VFC-13 receiving some ex-ANG F-16C Vipers, NAWDC will also see an influx of newer Block 32 C-models to replace its aging fleet of legacy F/A-18 Hornets.

Last but by no means least, a nice row of VAQ-137 Rooks EA-18G Growlers from Whidbey Island, with the CAG-bird at the head.


We would like to thank Mr 'Zip' Upham and everyone else at NAS Fallon who kindly worked with us and helped make this article possible.

The Naval Fighter Weapons School moved to Fallon in 1996, joining the Naval Strike Air Warfare Center. Its 13-week Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor course (SFTI – TOPGUN), typically has around 15 students, and provides experienced F/A-18 Super Hornet Pilots and Weapons Systems Officers, advanced tactical training in air-to-air, air-to-ground, threat training and enemy tactics. More recently, pilots from the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II community have started to pass through TOPGUN alongside the Hornet crews.

training - the heart of it being the Advanced Digital Display System or ADDS. The FRTC has four separate training ranges, plus an integrated air defence system consisting of thirty-seven real or simulated radars throughout the Dixie Valley area of Nevada, with the entire range also instrumented with a Tactical Aircrew Combat Training System (TACTS).

VFA-14's sister squadron within CVW-9, which also flies the F/A-18E, is VFA-151Vigilantes. Having previously flown both the F/A-18A and the F/A-18C versions of the Legacy Hornet, VFA-151 began transitioning to the Super Hornet in February 2013, at the same time moving from Carrier Air Wing Two, to CVW-9.

Amongst the many achievements in VFA-151's proud history are the receipt of the Presidential Unit Citation, eight Armed Forces Expeditionary Medals, four Battle “E” awards, six Safety S's, six Navy Unit Commendations.

In the photo right, is VFA-151's beautifully painted CAG-bird.

Carrying a Cubic Global Defense CTS/ACMI pod, this two-seat ex-Jordanian Air Force F-5F is seen departing Fallon as part of a two-ship flight to engage some F/A-18 Super Hornets

The Home of Military Aircraft

Together with its 14,000ft runway and excellent training facilities, NAS Fallon is the only base in existence where an entire U.S. Navy Carrier Air Wing (CVW) can conduct comprehensive training whilst integrating every element of the CVW into realistic battle scenarios. At any time, the base activity is hectic, but when a Carrier Air Wing is in situ, missions are in full flow from dawn until dusk, with waves of aircraft pouring out of Fallon. In the photo above, a F/A-18F Super Hornet from VFA-41 Black Aces prepares to launch from Runway 31L for an afternoon mission over the Fallon ranges. The aircraft was one of many assigned to CVW-9 that were active during our visit in October 2022.

In order to retain a modern threat replication, the current fleet of ten F-16As and four F-16Bs at NAWDC are scheduled to undergo a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) and Operational Safety Improvement Program (OSIP), which will increase their service life to 8,000 flight hours. In conjunction with the newly acquired F-16C/D models, the Viper will continue to roar above the Fallon ranges for many years to come.

Having deployed with a combination of fourth and fifth-generation aircraft, and executing more than 21,307 flight hours comprising 10,250 sorties, 8,437 launches and 8,487 aircraft arrests during their cruise on the boat, this deployment represented what was termed the U.S. Navy’s “Airwing of the Future”.

As with the pre-deployment work-up, the whole process is overseen by NAWDC, along with VFC-13, who provided adversary support during

With courses held throughout the year, a typical six-week cycle at CSFWPD consists of a two-week VFA-122 air-to-ground detachment, followed by a two-week VFA-122 air-to-air detachment, and finally a two-week VFA-106 air-to-ground detachment. Aircraft used by the unit are a mix of VFA-106 and VFA-122 (the respective east and west coast Fleet Replacement Squadrons) F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, temporarily detached to Fallon. Seen in the photo left, is one of VFA-122's F/A-18E Super Hornets.

'Desert Outlaws'

As previously mentioned, Carrier Air Wing Nine was the first Carrier Strike Group to deploy with a U.S. Marine Corps F-35C Lightning II squadron (VMFA-314) on board. During the deployment, the Black Knights flew almost 1200 sorties, and logged more than 2200 flight hours. Seen in the photo left, is one of the F-35C aircraft during the Refresher Course at NAS Fallon. Previously operating the F/A-18A++ Hornet, VMFA-314 transitioned to the F-35C in January 2020, the first Marine Corps squadron to receive the C-model.

Nominally based at Fallon until May 2023, this 'Desert Brown' camouflage F-5AT is seen departing Fallon for another afternoon intercept mission

VFC-13 'Fighting Saints'

Alongside the two F/A-18E squadrons with CVW-9 is VFA-41, the sole F/A-18F squadron. Operating the two-seat Super Hornet, VFA-41

Close-up of a World Famous Golden Dragons F/A-18E from VFA-192, part of CVW-2 based out of NAS Lemoore,

and another F/A-18E from VFA-131 Wildcats, an east-coast based squadron from NAS Oceana, with CVW-3

in 1994 to form the Strike Fighter Wing Detachment. In late 1996, the detachment came under the control of Commander, Strike Fighter Wing Pacific, (CSFWP). On 1 October 2010, VFA-125 was deactivated as an F/A-18 Fleet Replacement Squadron (later re-establishing as the F-35 FRS), with its aircraft and personnel incorporated into VFA-122.

Carrier Air Wing Nine (CVW-9)

Two shots of the same F/A-18F here, a VFA-154 Black Knights, part of Carrier Air Wing 11