Interview with a Vampire


Interview and images: Alan Kenny – TACAIRNET

LT Patrick ‘Fab’ Martin is a pilot and Operational Test Director (OTD) for the EA-18G Software Configuration Set (SCS) H8E, managing a test team of four aircrew, five civilians, and a test budget of $1.4 million while also acting Electronic Warfare Branch Deputy, as well Power plants Division Officer. He belongs to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Nine (VX-9) ‘Vampires’ at Station (NAWS) China Lake, California. He flies the electronic attack version of the F/A-18F Super Hornet, the EA-18G Growler.

LT Martin got his ‘Wings of Gold’ in 2006, LT Martin’s first fast jet squadron was with VAQ-129 ‘Vikings’ on the EA-6B Prowler at the American Pacific Northwest base of NAS Whidbey Island. The following year he transferred to VAQ-142 ‘Gray Wolves’. During his tenure, he participated in 8 Large Force Exercises, Following his tour at VAQ-142, he transferred to Naval Air Station (NAS) Oceana, Virginia and VFA-106 ‘Gladiators’ where he underwent training on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. From there he went back to VAQ-129 to train on the EA-18G Growler.

LT Martin inspects the coupling on the AN/ALQ-99 jamming pod.

TACAIRNET: What does a typical day consist of at VX-9?

Martin: I arrive at work early in the morning for foreign object debris (FOD) walk. One of the times the Officers get to interact with Sailors who work on the aircraft. If it is a fly day for me (usually 3-4 days a week and average 20-25 hrs a month since I have been here) we will plan a mission for whatever we are doing. Briefing is usually two hours prior to take-off, flights average between 1.5 – 2 hrs, we land and debrief and then comes the “chair flying” or catching up behind the desk. I check emails, write reports for the test, set up future missions, etc. Lunch is always behind the desk because it saves time. If you’re not doing something, then you’re doing something wrong. So if there is down time, then you use that time to study or start working on collateral jobs such as a smaller project, or Division Officer duties (currently my main job is EW Branch Deputy and H8 Phase II OTD). Collaterals are Next Generation Jammer and DTS in projects and Powerplants Division Officer and Senior Watch Officer outside of projects. The day usually ends around 1600 depending on workload.

Fab completes pre-floght checks in the cockpit as the WSO configures his instrument panel.

TACAIRNET: You have a lot of experience as a fleet pilot, have flown more than 195 combat missions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and have over 2,000 hours of military tactical jet flying time. How does this benefit your current squadron?

Martin: Everyone at VX-9 is a fleet experienced aviator who has at least one cruise and/or deployment under their belt. This experience is priceless when you bring it into the test community because you have expectations, you know what annoys you and you know what you like. The best part about Operational Test is you are given the tools and know how, along with multiple opportunities, to give inputs that impact the warfighter’s ability to execute multiple types of missions. The pilots and your buddies are still in the fleet squadrons which you left just a few months back, so they are relying on you to get it right for their safety and success.

Start your engines.

TACAIRNET: You were the first EA-18G Growler pilot to fire the AGM-88E AARGM. What was the process and what was it like to fire the missile?

Martin: Shooting the AARGM for the first time from the Growler involved a lot of planning for engineers and analysts as every detail was fine tuned for aircrew success. The shoot was a joint test mission with a VX-9 pilot (myself) and a VX-31 Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO). A few live carries were performed for aircrew training and data collection. After all of the checks were in the block, it was time for the live fire. The live fire was a success. The conduct of the flight from a pilot perspective was a lot like shooting a HARM. Watching a large missile come off the rail and take the predicted flight trajectory at very high speeds is always a thrill. It is also exciting to see the video results and pictures from missile impact post flight. It gives everyone involved a sense of pride and accomplishment for their hard work. I feel very lucky and honoured that I got to take part in such a vital mission to the development of the future of the Growler. Everything we do at VX-9 is in light of supporting the Warfighter.

VX-9 have three EA-18G Growlers stationed at NAWS China Lake. BuNo 166855 ‘XE-500, 166946 ‘XE-501’ and 168771 ‘XE-555’.

TACAIRNET: VX-9, is based at China Lake and within the R-2508 complex and the Sidewinder low fly system. Do you often get to fly low level missions on the squadron?

Martin: We are very lucky to be based here in the R-2508 range in and around China Lake and Edwards. We take-off and almost immediately enter the range. We have privileges that most ranges can’t offer day in and day out. We fly in the low level environment to keep a high level of proficiency in the basic skill set required to fly the aircraft as low as 200 ft above the ground and at speeds exceeding 500kts. Depending on the type of mission, flying low and fast provides aircrew an additional tactic that contributes to the lethality and survivability of both the aircraft and aircrew.

LT Martin flies his Growler through the Sidewinder Low Flying System in Death Valley California. The pilots need to keep current with low flying techniques throughout their testing career.

TACAIRNET: You have flown an impressive array of fast jets, the T-45C Goshawk, EA-6B Prowler, F/A-18F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler.

Martin: I have been very lucky as an Electronic Warfare (EW) pilot to get trained as a ‘fighter guy’ would for all types of Strike/Fighter missions and fly sorties that most EW pilots do not get to do, all from the F/A-18 Super Hornet. This includes dropping live 500lb BLU 111s, shooting the 20mm cannon at ground targets, shooting the 20mm cannon at an aerial gun banner towed behind an F-18 (by far my favourite) and last I had the opportunity to shoot an AGM-88C HARM (from EA-6B Prowler).

Touch down. NAWS China Lake is situated in the California high desert over 150 miles north east of Los Angeles and makes for a very scenic backdrop.

TACAIRNET: Can you describe your experiences and differences of landing on an aircraft carrier in the three aircraft types you’ve flown, the T-45C, EA-6B and F/A-18F.

Martin: I will never forget as Dash 3 in a T-45 four ship (instructor leading) seeing a carrier at sea for the first time holding overhead at 15,000 feet. Small is an overstatement! I had never even stepped foot on an aircraft carrier and I was going to land, taxi, and take-off multiple times with only a handful of hours in the Goshawk. My most memorable moment: After coming down from the stack of holding aircraft I was second to land after the break. The pilot in front of me caught the wire for the first time, (I was at the 90 degree position, right before rolling into the the groove where you see the ball) the forward force of him catching the wire and going to MIL thrust caused him to key the radio switch which broadcasted at a very high pitch “OH MY GOD” to all aircraft and controllers on the frequency. I was distracted to say the least. Then the Airboss said “Was that her first trap?” I was too scared to laugh. After two more cats and traps it became by far the most exciting thing I had ever done, and began to enjoy the experience versus fear it. Looking back at the aircraft post flight was truly a sense of accomplishment when I realised “I put that here”.

Behind the boat, the EA-6B Prowler is known as one of the more challenging aircraft to get aboard the ship. First,  it has poor cockpit ergonomics, meaning instrumentation, certain controls, and lighting are archaic. Depending on the stature of the pilot, sometimes the seat has to be raised in the full up position to see over the panel at 17 degrees angle of attack (AOA), making it a challenge to see the ball, while reaching down for the throttle and rudder pedals. Overall the aircraft is a more hands on type aircraft to fly based on the age of the airframe and technology from the 60’s, so you are always trimming a control surface for ease of flight. What makes the carrier qualification evolution in the Prowler go much smoother is the fact that a Fleet experienced NFO or ECMO is assigned to you through all of your CQ flights, as a crew you become a well oiled machine and capable of handling anything should arise such as an emergency. Simulator training is key especially when it comes to the transition from instruments to the ball at night. Without thinking about it too much the differences are subtle when it comes down to flying an ‘on and on’ approach which gets you to a point where the ball flying skills take over.

Flying the EA-18G behind the boat is like cheating when comparing it to the Prowler. You have a HUD, fly by wire controls, and a comfortable cockpit layout that aids in not fatiguing the pilot. Still, the boat will present you with some of the most dynamic types of flying possible and you must be ready for all of them. I will say the Growler frees up some of your time, making the overall experience easier when it comes to procedures, ball flying, and simply getting aboard safely every time.

The EA-18G Growler has replaced almost all of the US Navy’s EA-6B Prowlers at NAS Whidbey Island. It is cheaper and easier to fly than the classic and much bigger Prowler.

TACAIRNET: What does the future hold for you?

Martin: I will transfer to NAS Pensacola, Florida and VT-86 ‘Sabrehawks’ flying the T-45C Goshawk trainer aircraft. I’ll be flying with student WSOs who are in the advanced stages of training doing low levels, Combat Air Support (CAS), Basic Fighter Manoeuvres (BFM), and bombing to name the tactical stuff.

Mission complete. LT Patrick ‘Fab’ Martin descends the aircraft ladder to prepare for his flight debrief back in the VX-9 Ops room.
Turn ‘n’ Burn

Huge thanks must go to LT Patrick Martin for his time and knowledge. I must also thank LT Luke Koran, VX-9 PAO, CMDR Scott Fisher, VX-9 CO and Peggy Shoaf, NAWS China Lake PAO for their hospitality and access.

This interview can also be found in the August, 2014 issue of Combat Aircraft


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