Desert Heat

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Words by Matt Willis

If you are from the San Diego area, you are probably no stranger to the military presence here. Being the largest Naval port serving the Pacific fleet, San Diego is home for several carrier groups, marine installations, and their joint aircraft squadrons. On any given day, various military training exercises can be witnessed from all around the county – from Camp Pendleton down to Imperial Beach, and Miramar in-between.

About two hours east of San Diego, though, lies one of the most active training facilities in the West – the El Centro facility. Serving hundreds of active squadrons nationwide, this small base in the middle of nowhere is the winter practice site for the Blue Angels and host of many live-fire training missions.

I recently got the opportunity to stay on the base for a few hours, and get in close proximity to some amazing machinery.

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The “Tigers” of training squadron VT-9, from Meridian, MS are often temporarily operating at El Centro to sharpen their skills. The clear weather, high clouds and wide open landscape in the area make it a perfect spot to train new pilots.

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The T-45C Goshawk is the Navy’s current advanced jet trainer. On a typical mission, the student is flying in front with a cautious – yet confident – instructor supervising at the rear.

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Pilots must first succeed and prove their talent in the T-45 before moving on to a combat ready jet, such as the F/A-18.

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An AV-8 Harrier from the VX-31 “Dust Devils” Evaluation Squadron. Most of the Harriers passing through are from MCAS Yuma about 50 miles east, but this one in particular is from China Lake NAWS.

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VX-31 specializes primarily in testing various weapons and avionics systems.

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Most of the Navy’s current strike fleet is composed of F/A-18s. The VFA-106 “Gladiators” of the Atlantic Fleet often visit El Centro for practice.

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They come here for basic flight instruction and for weapons training at the various target ranges spread around the Imperial/Sonoran desert.

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Unlike the T-45, an F/A-18 can dump fuel downstream of exhaust for maximum acceleration. The after-burning process produces nearly 8 times the thrust of a single T-45. At a mere 25 feet away, this has to be (bar-none) one of the loudest sounds I’ve heard in my life. The ground shakes like the 1,000 sub woofers at max volume, and the displaced air is strong enough to nearly blow you over. I’ve been around some loud and powerful machines, but nothing trumps this…

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Approaches and landings are all flown identically (or as close as possible) every single time. A precise combination of speed, position and pitch angle is needed to catch the wires on the deck of an aircraft carrier without error – the same principles are applied here, just without the ship and moving surface.

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The tolerance for error on every approach is narrow. Any mistake on the landing here at El Centro could be a fatality at sea, so pilots are consistently – and continually – evaluated on this aspect of the flight.

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A C-2 Greyhound of the VRC-30 “Providers”, operating out of NAS North Island in San Diego.

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VRC-30 specializes in fleet logistics – mainly the movement of cargo and mail – throughout the Navy.

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Pilots taking turns in the “LSO” box to evaluate one another’s landings.

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Towards the evening, the sun setting over the Laguna Mountains casts a nice light for the last few passes of the day.

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Thanks for viewing!

Thanks to Kristopher Haugh, FenceCheck and the NAFEC Public Affairs Office for the opportunity. Looking forward to many more!

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