By Lt. j.g. Joseph Bayo
Commander, Naval Air Forces Atlantic (CNAL) recently recognized the "Tridents" of Patrol Squadron (VP) 26 as winner of both the 2013 Maritime Patrol Battle Efficiency Award, or Battle "E" - and the 2013 Arnold Jay Isbell Trophy.
Capturing both awards in a single year is a rare occurrence in the Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Force, but as the last NAS Jacksonville-based P-3C Orion squadron scheduled to transition to the P-8A Poseidon, VP-26 was given several unique operational opportunities in 2013, and they delivered with characteristic "Trident Pride."
The Battle "E" is presented annually to the CNAL unit in each aviation community that best demonstrates warfighting efficiency and operational proficiency.
The Arnold J. Isbell Trophy is awarded for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare excellence.
The Tridents began 2013 in the second half of their 12-month Inter-Deployment Readiness Cycle (IDRC). With the support of Commander, Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing (CPRW) 11, they were preparing for an historic deployment to the 7th Fleet area of responsibility, where Commanding Officer Cmdr. Mark Sohaney would take charge of two task groups - including aircrewmen and maintainers from two P-3C reserve squadrons and Whidbey Island's VP-1.
In 2013, VP-26 also took on a lion's share of the P-3C maintenance workload at NAS Jacksonville because three local squadrons were transitioning to the P-8A.
VP-26 maintenance completed 14 modification line inductions, 15 aircraft acceptances, 13 aircraft transfers and 15 intermediate maintenance concept (IMC) inspections.
In early 2013, when CPRW-11 was tasked to respond to a foreign out-of-area deployer, they assigned VP-26 as the task group commander. Supported by NAS Jacksonville's VP-30, VP-10, VP-16 and VP-62, the Tridents led a successful 24-hour operation for 19 continuous days.
"It is an honor to be a part of this outstanding organization," said Sohaney. "These awards highlight for the rest of naval aviation the hard work and professionalism that I am privileged to witness every day. It is humbling to lead such great men and women. To see their efforts recognized in this way is truly rewarding."
Also during the IDRC, VP-26 collaborated with the CPRW-11 Weapons School to launch an AGM-84D Harpoon and AGM-65F Maverick from the same aircraft on a single sortie. This team effort was the first time a CPRW-11 aircraft launched dissimilar anti-surface warfare missiles on a single flight.
These experiences and an Advanced Readiness Program syllabus run by CPRW-11 weapons and tactics Instructors prepared VP-26 to perform superbly during its pre-deployment certifications - an Operational Readiness Evaluation (ORE) and an Aviation Warfare Training Improvement Program (AWTIP) assessment - during which VP-26 earned the highest scores in the Wing in 2013.
During its U.S. 7th Fleet deployment, VP-26 assumed command of both Task Group 72.2 and Task Group 72.4. The squadron was augmented by six reserve crews from VP-62 and VP-69, as well as six crews from VP-1, maintaining 18 combat-proficient crews in theater throughout the deployment.
VP-26's successful integration of aircrews from four squadrons was unprecedented and established the model for future active-reserve integration. Overall, VP-26 led more than 533 active and reserve sailors, including 24 aircrews and 12 aircraft achieving a 99.6 percent mission completion rate.
The squadron also conducted 36 detachments to 14 countries and supported 28 multinational exercises and 20 U.S. maritime exercises. Among the highlights from this demanding schedule were VP-26's interactions with allies and partners, including the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) and Royal Australian Air Force. In July, VP-26 detached a P-3C to New Zealand, yielding strategic gains as the first U.S. P-3 to fly there since 1984. In November, a combined active-reserve detachment went to Chennai, India to support Exercise MALABAR-13. During that detachment a mixed crew of VP-62 and VP-26 aircrewmen conducted the first "hot ASW" turnover with a Russian-made TU-142.
VP-26 also advanced the bilateral relationship with Japan and enhanced interoperability with the Japanese Maritime Defense Force (JMSDF), through numerous exchanges with JMSDF Patrol Squadrons 5 and 2 and hosting the three-star Commander, Fleet Air Force JMSDF at Kadena Air Base.
These planned engagements are an important reason U.S. P-3Cs deploy to the Western Pacific, but Jacksonville squadrons also operate forward in order to respond rapidly to crises.
VP-26 was deployed and responded superbly in October 2013 when Super Typhoon Haiyan devastated portions of the Philippines. Within hours of the government of the Philippines' request for assistance, CTG 72.2 P-3Cs were on station to assess the damage. Aircrews and maintainers from VP-26 and VP-62 supported search and rescue missions and provided critical overhead imagery to help those on the ground identify areas in need and deliver humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Overall, VP-26 flew 4,268 flight hours with 412 hours of anti-submarine warfare contact time, and surpassed 51 years and 342,908 Class A mishap-free flight hours in 2013. The squadron's superlative performance across all maritime patrol and reconnaissance mission areas, unmatched maintenance effectiveness, and outstanding leadership during the first integrated active-reserve deployment were honored by CNAL with the 2013 Battle Efficiency Award and Arnold Jay Isbell Trophy.