Union Tribune

March 26, 2003

North Island's 'Red Griffins' destroy 'significant naval target'

By OTTO KREISHER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

ABOARD THE CONSTELLATION The "Red Griffins" of Sea Control Squadron 38 made a bit of history early yesterday, demonstrating that they really are fighters, not just gas station attendants.

A crew from the North Island Naval Air Station-based S-3B squadron fired a laser-guided Maverick missile to destroy a "significant naval target" in the Tigris River near Basra about 60 miles inland after launching from the aircraft carrier Constellation.

It was the first time that the versatile S-3B had been sent on a "time-critical," overland attack in the Viking's 30 years of Navy service and the first time one had fired a laser-guided weapon in combat, the Navy said.

The mission was flown by Lt. Cmdr. Richard McGrath, with Lt. Cmdr. Carlos Sardiello directing the mission as tactical control officer, and Lt. Michael Harvey handling communications, navigation and weapons. The S-3B has been used mostly as a tanker since hostilities broke out.

"This was an excellent example of the Navy being able to do things on very short notice, and the teamwork that we exhibit," McGrath said.

The Hornet pilot who provided the laser illumination for the S-3B's Maverick said he considered it a chance to repay the Vikings for their support.

"These guys are the unsung heroes of the air wing. They provide gas for us and they don't get a lot of glory," said the pilot, who asked to be identified by his call sign "Semi."

The crew said the air defenses around the target were not considered significant, which made it possible for the S-3B to be used.

The chance to get into the fight was a change for the Griffins, whose major contribution to the war has been the unglamorous but vital mission of airborne tanker.

Originally designed to go after submarines or surface ships in defense of the aircraft carriers, the S-3Bs have become increasingly important for their ability to share fuel with the gas-guzzling fighters.

VS-38's leaders are proud of the crucial role they play as flying gas stations, but also are quick to point out that they are capable of doing a lot more.

"I don't think you could do night carrier operations without" them, said Cmdr. Steven Kelly, the Griffins' commanding officer.

"Aerial refueling is absolutely vital for the air wing to perform its mission," added Cmdr. Ian Vetet, VS-38's executive officer. "I think the squadron takes a lot of pride in doing that mission well."

And, Kelly boasted, "on this deployment, we have a half dozen to a dozen saves." That means they prevented fighter aircraft from going into the water from lack of fuel.

Maj. Daniel Shipley, an F/A-18 pilot with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323, told a reporter that the Griffins saved him from having to divert from his mission during the opening night of the major air campaign.

But, Kelly insisted, "tanking is not our primary mission. Every mission we go on has an attack mission capability."

The S-3B has a high-resolution radar, an infrared night vision sensor and other equipment to find surface targets. It can carry depth charges or torpedoes for attacking submarines, conventional bombs, the Harpoon anti-ship missile, the SLAM-ER missile that is effective against land or sea targets, and the Maverick.

But, the S-3Bs are being phased out and this will be the Griffins' last hurrah. The squadron will be disbanded after it returns to North Island and most of its 35 officers and 188 enlisted personnel already have orders to new units.

Kelly, who grew up in Orange County, attended the University of San Diego and now lives in Carlsbad, said he plans to retire.

"I get to end on a high note," he said.