View Full Version : 'TOPGUNs' bring lethal tactics to Miramar

08-13-03, 05:45 AM
'TOPGUNs' bring lethal tactics to Miramar
Submitted by: MCAS Miramar
Story Identification Number: 2003811192142
Story by Lance Cpl. Paul Leicht

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION MIRAMAR, Calif.(August 8, 2003) -- Real-world combat experiences and advanced training can hammer home the importance of specialized, high-level instruction and flight leadership excellence.

Two F/A-18D Hornet crews here with Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 225 recently completed six weeks of advanced Naval aviation training with TOPGUN, the Naval Fighter Weapons School at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev.

Now graduates of the prestigious school, Capt. Matthew C. Shortal, 31, pilot and training officer, VMFA(AW)-225, and Maj. A. Che Bolden, 32, Weapons and Sensors Officer, VMFA(AW)-225, are ready and eager to pass on lessons learned to their peers, ensuring that excellence in training leads to further victory in battle.

"TOPGUN is the pinnacle of Marine aviation," said Shortal, whose father flew A-4s and F-4s for the Marines during Vietnam. "For an F/A-18 pilot it's what everyone is trying to achieve. As far as the quality of instructors, assets and ranges at Fallon, it's the Mecca of training and what you get there is unparalleled. We were very excited to go."

Shortal, a native of Chicago and an accomplished triathlete, said he and Bolden were originally scheduled to go to TOPGUN in January 2003, but due to being deployed to the Persian Gulf during Operation Iraqi Freedom they expected to go when they returned. When OIF ended and the Vikings of VMFA(AW)-225 came home, Shortal and Bolden soon flew out to NAS Fallon for the next course, taking their combat experiences from Iraq with them.

"I went to TOPGUN with an open mind knowing we didn't have this level of training before," Bolden said. "The instructors up there at Fallon are great. One of them is one of the only active duty MiG killers in the Navy-Marine Corps community and is one of the best instructors out there."

Bolden, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with interests in history, added that he was very honored because going to TOPGUN represented a lot of trust from the squadron since not many Marines are sent to Fallon.

After an initial week of academic instruction, Shortal and Bolden spent every day at TOPGUN flying mostly air-to-air missions in a variety of scenarios; anything from one-on-one to one-on-two, one-on-three and one-on-four, in addition to some air-to-ground missions.

"TOPGUN was more of an air-to-air experience," Shortal said. "But since most of our missions over Iraq were air-to-ground, the experiences definitely came into play."

Unlike the Air Force's Red Flag program, which is focused on big-mission strike packages, TOPGUN gets into the minute details.

"Nothing is too small to fix at TOPGUN, which is good because I expect to do a job right with 100 percent effort," said Shortal. "At TOPGUN they have very high standards and as a pilot you are always striving for that perfect hop."

In keeping with the Marine Corps tradition of excellence, Shortal and Bolden went to TOPGUN with valuable leadership and lessons learned through years of flight training and recent combat experience during OIF.

Although experienced Naval aviators with many hours in the Hornet, Shortal and Bolden experienced something new in the skies over Iraq-being shot at for the first time in air combat.

"Our training prepares us for that, but you never know how you're going to react in the real situation when you're getting shot at or dropping bombs, so you need to be prepared for the possible end results," Shortal said. "We practice getting shot at, but when you see the real thing up there it takes a second for it to register that you're supposed to do something. That's when the training kicks in and you take it out. Even at night it was a scary and almost beautiful thing to see. It was like looking at the Fourth of July over Baghdad."

For Bolden, the experience was equally stirring from the backseat.

"The first time it was in low-light conditions and it was very surreal," said Bolden. "After the initial shock and you realize what's happening, the training kicks in and you do what you have to do. The more it happened the more we became almost desensitized to it and became more effective at neutralizing the threat. Our capabilities made us more confident as well."

Shortal, with more than 1,500 hours in the Hornet, said he and Bolden flew 37 missions over Iraq, including Forward Air Control (Airborne), Deep Air Strike, Close Air Support and Defensive Counter Air missions. Whatever the mission, Shortal and Bolden agreed flying in the two-seat version of the Hornet has definite advantages over the single seat versions.

"I knew the limitations of the Hornet and at TOPGUN I really learned how to fly the two-seater in an air-to-air environment," said Shortal. "Being a former single-seat guy, going to Fallon to learn how to deploy as a crew with Maj. Bolden in the back seat definitely made us more lethal."

As the crew's WSO, Bolden adds a check and balance element whose primary focus is on navigation using radar and navigational aids. According to Bolden, the Hornet is a unique aircraft because it can do essentially everything.

"The main advantage to the two-seat version is that the pilot is not the sole person responsible," Bolden said. "You have someone to back you up or to get in trouble with you and we frequently provide 'sanity checks' for one another. There are times when it's easier, but there are also times when you see crews that are on different pages who don't necessarily click all the time."

In certain situations, the pilot is able to focus on flying while the WSO can review maps or navigational aids, making the crew a very effective fighting team.

"It's often crucial to have a WSO, especially in combat when you're being shot at or when you're task saturated," explained Shortal. "But there is definitely a vital role for the single seat version of the Hornet. The Navy and Marine Corps team does it every day and they do it very well."

Teamwork also characterizes the relationship between pilot and WSO.

"We work as a team," said Bolden regarding the cooperation between himself and Shortal. "We've been flying together as a crew for seven months now and we work well together."

Looking beyond his crew, Bolden, who has flown with different pilots in his career, believes that as a squadron the Vikings take their strength from working as a team.

"You can throw us in the jet, tell us what to do and we'll find a way to make it work," said Bolden. "In OIF the teamwork concept worked like a champ."

Now, with their experiences from OIF and TOPGUN behind them, Shortal and Bolden said they look forward to new challenges as they continue to climb the flight-training pyramid.

With a new outlook on training, they both have been entrusted to pass on their knowledge to the other crews within their squadron, both new and veteran alike, so that their TOPGUN fighting experiences make the Vikings even more deadly in the air.

"I see the importance of it much more than ever before," explained Bolden. "When you see it in its purest application in a life and death situation, you see your training and how confident you are in a new light. Much of what we learned was validated. At TOPGUN, unfortunately much of what we did in OIF did not have extensive practical applications because it was mostly air-to-air since our missions in OIF were largely air-to-ground, which is our nature as Marines. But it does not mean that it won't apply to some other conflict in some other part of the world. It just so happened that the Iraqis didn't challenge us in that respect in the air."

Sustaining the force and providing CAS is what separates the Marines apart from the other services. For both Shortal and Bolden, this tradition of Marine aviation is closely cherished and serves as inspiration every day.

"When I talk to the guy on the ground, 90 percent of the time I know him, so I know what he's thinking and he knows what I'm thinking," explained Shortal. "There's a special bond between us as Marines that the Army and the Air Force doesn't have. My helmet cover is camouflage just like the Marines on the ground so we're all thinking on the same page."

Experience can be an excellent learning tool and with a new TOPGUN patch to add to his flight uniform, Bolden also recognizes the importance of the responsibility he now has to his fellow Marines.

"The best part of my job is hearing the relief in the voice of the Marine on the ground," said Bolden. "There were days in OIF when I was nervous until we checked in and heard that those Marines were OK. Passing on the knowledge gained from that experience and TOPGUN helps us to train harder and make sure that the Marines who follow us will be influenced by something I did that is incorporated in the tactics we learned. That legacy is better than anyone remembering your name."


Capt. Matthew C. Shorthill (left) and Maj. A. Che Bolden stand next to a Viking F/A-18D Hornet on the flight line after a flight.
Photo by: Lance Cpl. Paul Leicht