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Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 41 “Black Aces”

Squadron History

Deep in the desert of Arizona is an aircraft graveyard, known as the "Boneyard." Relics of past eras of aviation sit row upon row for literally as far as the eye can see. The progression of Naval Aviation, and the material history of squadrons like the Black Aces of Strike Fighter Squadron 41, stands amidst both the civilian and military remnants contained within these acres of storied history.
In one section sit rusting, prop-driven, gull-winged F4U Corsairs, of the type first used by then VF-41 during their maiden cruises following World War II. In another, F-4 Phantoms used by the Black Aces in Vietnam recall their missions over dense jungle and against wily adversaries. And in still another, the majestic F-14 Tomcat, perhaps the fighter best associated with the Ace of Spades, has joined her steel sisters in much deserved rest. To represent them all, an entire continent away, a VF-41 Black Ace Tomcat sits proudly perched, alone, in front of the Museum of Naval Aviation History in Pensacola, FL.
Yet while these marvels of flight are the physical manifestation of a fighter squadron, the men and women who flew and maintained them are the true source of the warrior spirit that has pervaded VFA-41 since its initial inception. Their backgrounds were and continue to be a microcosm of America herself, but one and all, they are warriors who, in the words of Robert Heinlein, "voluntarily stood between the desolation of war and civilization" time and again.
Though the decades passed and innovations evolved, the daring spirit of the men (and in modern times, women) has remained the same regardless of the technological changes around them. Even though 63 years have passed since the Black Aces were first commissioned on the green fields of a long-since forgotten Naval Air Station in Virginia, and her aircraft and duty stations have changed innumerable times, the men and women who flew and fought these marvels of engineering have all held to the ethos that has transcended time and space, and one that History has validated time and again: "FIRST TO FIGHT; FIRST TO STRIKE."
On September 1, 1950, with the dawn of the Jet Age, the Black Aces began their journey. Having been newly commissioned as an F2-H Banshee squadron, their first assignment was to patrol the seas of the Mediterranean against the rising Soviet threat. By the end of the decade, VFA-41 received new jets in the form of F3H-2 Demon, the first such aircraft to possess radar guided air-to-air missiles. The Demon was short lived, but provided the foundation for the next Black Ace aircraft, the venerable F-4 Phantom.
Soon after receiving the Phantom in 1962, the Black Aces were called upon to deploy just miles from the U.S. coast near Key West Florida during the Cuban Missile Crisis. VF-41 was instrumental in ensuring the blockade of Soviet flagged merchant vessels was successfully executed, stopping further nuclear missiles from reaching Fidel Castro. The Black Aces literally saw "the other guy blink."
World events did not abandon the Aces, as less than three years later in 1965, the Black Aces and their Phantoms began patrols off the coast of the then-little known country of Vietnam. Their time at sea was punctuated by providing primary fighter escort for massive air strikes against North Vietnamese targets. And although VFA-41 was known for its air interdiction, photo reconnaissance and flak suppression roles, it was the ordeal of a single young pilot that left a lasting legacy and imprint upon this fabled squadron.
Lieutenant (junior grade) David Wheat was a radar intercept officer just six months from his winging when he and his pilot, Lieutenant Roderick Mayer were shot down during a day air strike against the Thai Nguyen bridge northeast of Hanoi. Both were listed as Missing-in-Action, although LT Mayer passed away soon after the crash. LTJG Wheat, meanwhile, was captured and spent the next seven and a half year in North Vietnamese captivity. Upon his return home with the rest of his imprisoned brethren in 1973, this Black Ace, despite years of torture and solitary confinement, stated: "It's been an honor to serve our fine country. You think of us as heroes but we didn't do anything that you, the average American, wouldn't have done under similar circumstances. Faith in the American people and government were the prime factors that sustained me during the long internment. Knowing that we would be coming back to a land of freedom and opportunity was a great lift."
Meanwhile, the same year young LTJG Wheat returned to the United States, the Black Aces continued their worldwide involvement by deploying in support of the peacekeeping mission following the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East. It was an area of the world they would return to many times in the following decades.
By the end of the 1970s, VF-41 had transitioned from their aging Phantoms to the swing-wing F-14 Tomcat. They were soon put to use, diverted from a scheduled Med cruise to the Arabian Sea to head off the developing Afghani/Iranian crisis of 1980, spending 144 continuous days at sea, the most since the cessation of hostilies after World War II.
Just over one year later, in August of 1981, the Black Aces found themselves once again in the Mediterranean. During a routine combat air patrol mission on the 19th of that month, a flight of VF-41 Tomcats was fired upon by 2 Libyan Su-22 Fencers. The Fencers were quickly engaged by the pursuing Black Aces, and both Libyan jets shot down. These were the first recorded air-to-air kills for the Navy since Vietnam, and the first ever for the F-14.
The remainder of the 1980s was spent in numerous deployments to the Middle East in response to events such as the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut and the hijacking of TWA flight 847. Their expertise of the region paid dividends when multinational forces gathered in December of 1990 to oust Saddam Hussein from the sands of Kuwait. The Black Aces compiled over 1,500 flight hours, but even more impressive was its unprecedented 100 percent sortie completion rate, a true testament to the skills of the maintainers who kept the Black Ace aircrews in the air.
Throughout the 1990s, the focus of VF-41 shifted away from the forces of the Middle East and to the tumultuous regions of Eastern Europe following the fall of the Iron Curtain. In 1995, the Black Aces once again made Naval Aviation history by being the first Tomcat squadron to employ air-to-ground ordinance against enemy targets during Operation DELIBERATE FORCE over Bosnia-Herzegovina.
They returned to the region in 1999 to fly combat missions over Kosovo following further tensions in the former Yugoslavian region. Their cruise was documented in the book Black Aces High. VF-41 continued to make history by being the first squadron to employ air-to-ground ordinance in two theaters of operation in the same deployment, supporting OPERATION SOUTHERN WATCH over Iraq following their combat missions in Kosovo.
In April 2001, the Black Aces began what was to be their last Tomcat cruise, and while returning home in September of that year, were suddenly called back into action after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. VF-41 was the first squadron over the beach in the initial phases of Operation Enduring Freedom, dropping 200,000 lbs of laser guided ordinance against Taliban and al-Queda targets within the first month of combat. They returned home in December, decommissioning their beloved Tomcats to become the first operational F/A-18F Super Hornet squadron, and officially adopting the Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) moniker.
Since the transition, the Black Aces have made three combat deployments to Iraq, one in each of 2003, 2005 and 2007. The first supported the opening stages of the war, once again compiling the remarkable sortie completion rate of 100 percent. The second was most recently documented in the PBS miniseries "Carrier." The 2007 cruise took the Black Aces to both the Iraqi and Afghani theaters of operation.
In February 2012, VFA-41 completed a seven month deployment aboard the USS JOHN C STENNIS (CVN-74) in the Arabian Gulf and North Arabian Sea in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and the final combat missions of Operation New Dawn. Less than six months later after an abbreviated turn around, the Black Aces once again deployed aboard STENNIS for an eight-month deployment in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. During this time, STENNIS was the United States Navy's only deployed aircraft carrier. The Black Aces returned on April 29, 2013 and are currently in the middle of a post-deployment sustainment phase.
In January 2016 VFA-41 with Air Carrier Wing 9 deployed aboard John C. Stennis to the South China Sea to ensure freedom of navigation. Ports of call during this deployment included Guam, Busan, Singapore, Manila and Pearl Harbor. The squadron flew out to its landbase at Lemoore, California on August 9 2016.
On October 2018, VFA-41 once again left with Carrier Air Wing Nine for a seven month deployment aboard the John C. Stennis. Departing from San Diego, the Stennis conducted a combat “around the world” cruise, crossing through multiple AOR’s in support of both OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM and OPERATION INHERENT RESOLVE in Afghanistan and Syria. Additionally, they conducted freedom of navigation transits in the South Chinas Seas of 7th Fleet. They returned from deployment in May of 2019.
Thus, the story of America herself during the past five decades is the story of VFA-41. An unbroken string of unnamed men and women who forever will be Black Aces are the giants upon whose shoulders VFA-41 now stands, and remain the voices and faces of too often emotionless historical fact. The lessons learned, and rules literally written in blood, are what makes the Black Aces of today what they are. History is an unpredictable mistress, but whatever she directs, you can be sure the Black Aces will be there to partake.
CDR Charles C. Aimsworth 20 Aug 50 - 3 Jun 51
CDR George Shaw-Corthorn 8 Jun 51 - 17 Jun 52
CDR Dexter C. Rumsey III 27 Jun 52 - 31 Aug 53
CDR Hoke M. Sisk 1 Sep 53 - 25 Jul 54
CDR Ronald P. Gift 25 Jul 54 - 7 Sep 54
CDR Earl P. Yates 22 Sep 54 - 10 Jul 55
CDR William H. Livingston 10 Jul 55 - 10 Jun 57
CDR Robert E. Warner 10 Jun 57 - 24 Jul 58
LCDR Waldo A. Atkins 24 Jul 58 - 15 Sep 58
CDR Harding C. Macknigh 15 Sep 58 - 22 Jan 60
CDR Lyttleton T. Ward 22 Jan 60 - 5 May 61
CDR Lorin W. Hay 5 May 61 - 31 Jan 62
CDR Dewitt L. Freeman 31 Jan 62 - 21 Feb 63
CDR Owen H. Oberg 21 Feb 63 - 23 Jan 64
CDR Delbert W. Nordberg 23 Jan 64 - 12 Feb 65
CDR Robert H. Gormely 12 Feb 65 - 04 Feb 66
CDR Lee E. Koett 04 Feb 66 - 24 Feb 67
CDR Daniel McCormick III 24 Feb 67 - 1 Mar 68
CDR Don V. Wells 1 Mar 68 - 28 Feb 69
CDR Marving McCanna, Jr. 28 Feb 69 - 23 Dec 69
CDR William A. Lott 23 Dec 69 - 3 Dec 70
CDR Guy Cane 3 Dec 70 - 22 Oct 71
CDR Edward J. Hickey, JR 22 Oct 71 - 2 Aug 72
CDR Raymond A. Ways 2 Aug 72 - 3 Aug 73
CDR Nathaniel B. Dyer 3 Aug 73 - 9 Aug 74
CDR Donald A. Baker 9 Aug 74 - 14 Nov 75
CDR Milton M. Scott 14 Nov 75 - 6 Jan 77
CDR Ward L. West 6 Jan 77 - 28 Apr 78
CDR David W. Hoffman 28 Apr 78 - 15 Jun 79
CDR David J. Formo 15 Jun 79 - 3 Nov 79
CDR Aurthur K. Cebrowski 3 Nov 79 - 13 Feb 81
CDR Henry M. Kleeman 13 Feb 81 - 29 Jun 82
CDR Michael E. Field 29 Jun 82 - 14 Dec 83
CDR David M. Williams 14 Dec 83 - 20 Jun 85
CDR John A. Seddon 20 Jun 85 - 2 Oct 86
CDR Craig V. Campbell 2 Oct 86 - 15 Apr 88
CDR Edwards S. Shuman 15 Apr 88 - 14 Sep 89
CDR Kenneth F. Heimgartner 14 Sep 89 - 29 Nov 90
CDR Chris Wuethrich 29 Nov 90 - 28 Feb 92
CDR S. Eric Benson 28 Feb 92 - 28 May 93
CDR John W. Sherman 28 May 93 - 15 Jul 94
CDR Richard C. Bedford 15 Jul 94 - 15 Dec 95
CDR Bob A. Brauer 15 Dec 95 - 28 Mar 97
CDR Kenneth P. Neubauer 28 Mar 97 - 12 Jun 98
CDR Joseph P. Aucoin 12 Jun 98 - 8 Oct 99
CDR James J. Bauser 8 Oct 99 - 30 Mar 01
CDR Brian G. Gawne 30 Mar 01 - 27 Jun 02
CDR Patrick R. Cleary 27 Jun 02 - 10 Aug 03
CDR Kenneth R. Whitesell 10 Aug 03 - 15 Oct 04
CDR David M. Fravor 15 Oct 04 - 6 Jan 06
CDR Dell D. Bull 6 Jan 06 - 14 May 07
CDR Gregory J. Keithley 14 May 07 - 11 July 08
CDR Robert R. Osterhoudt 11 July 08 - 23 Oct 09
CDR Markus J. Gudmundsson 23 Oct 09 - 15 Dec 10
CDR Vorrice J. Burks 15 Dec 10 - 12 Apr 12
CDR Earl L. McDowell 12 Apr 12 - 10 Jul 13
CDR James E. Tidwell 10 Jul 13 - 09 Oct 14
CDR Shane F. Sullivan 09 Oct 14 - 15 Jan 16
CDR Marco Jasso 15 Jan 16 - 1 May 17
CDR Jacob Rosales 1 May 17 - 11 Jun 18
CDR Joshua A. Appezzato 11 Jun 18 - 10 Oct 19
CDR Nicholas S. Hampton 10 Oct 19 - 10 Dec 20
CDR Raymond T. Barr 10 Dec 20 - Present

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