This is the first in a series where we informally sit down and speak with the commanding officer of various military units. Simply called the C.O., he/she is responsible for everything, and I do mean everything that happens within their command. They are tasked with responsibilities from making sure the unit can complete what every mission handed to them to handling personnel training and issues that might crop up.
I am honored to introduce Lt. Colonel Chris “Cliff” Henger (pronounce as Hanger) to you. He is the new commanding officer of Marine Fighter Training Squadron VMFAT-101, known as the “Sharpshooters.” The Sharpshooters are based at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar. Henger took command of VMFAT-101, The Sharpshooters, just a few short months ago.
This squadron is responsible for the training of new Marine and Navy F/A-18 Hornet pilots after they finish their initial flight training at Pensacola, Florida, and advanced training at Naval Air Station Corpus Christy, Texas.
Lt. Col Henger graduated from University of New Mexico in May of 1991 where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology. While he had a good paying job, working in restaurant management, he knew that it wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life, and knew it was not to be his future. He was commissioned a second lieutenant via the Officer Candidate’s Course in April 1993. While originally planning to have a career on land, the Marine Corps had a different path for him to follow. After graduating The Basic School in October 1992, he reported to NAS Pensacola, Florida for flight training and was designated a Naval Aviator in February 1996.
In his 20-year career he has been assigned to various duties and commands, from flying F/A-18s to becoming the Commanding Officer of the Marine Corps Institute (MCI) and then the Executive Office (called the X.O. and second in command) of Marine Barracks, 8th & I St., Washington, D.C., which provides units for Presidential support.
He has served from MCAS Miramar to MCAS Iwakuni, Japan, and eventually, the Middle East and Afghanistan. He also has worked with ground units as the Air Officer.
He spent time with his current command VMFAT-101 once before when he served as an instructor pilot. His ground duties included Airframes Officer, Director of Safety and Standardization (DOSS) and Training Officer. During this tour, he graduated from the Marine Aviation and Weapons Tactics Squadron-One Weapons & Tactics Instructor course.
In July 2005, Henger served with Expeditionary Strike Group Three (ESG-3), Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, California, and served as the Air Officer. While with ESG-3, he deployed aboard the USS Peleliu to the Middle East in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. During this deployment, ESG-3 was designated as Task Force 59 and led a joint, non-combatant evacuation of 15,000 American citizens from Lebanon. He also served as Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff G-3 for 3d MAW (Forward) and deployed to Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, from January to July 2012, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, among other duties.
Henger has been awarded the Meritorious Service Medal (with gold star), Air Medal (Strike/Flight Numeral Six), Air Force Aerial Achievement Medal (with one cluster), Navy Marine Corps Commendation Medal (with gold star), and Navy Marine Corps Achievement Medal (with Gold Star).
After discussing his long and proud career as Marine officer and aviator, the interview began.
Q. Why the Marines?
A. Henger: (a slight laugh, and smile comes to his face), “I joined the Marines for a specific purpose. I was married and a little bit older than my peers and I had a good paying job, and while I was at the University of New Mexico, there was a large Air Force ROTC program. I wanted to join the military and learn a new skill that would help me later in life. I joined the Marines because it seemed the most challenging and I felt it was a better fit for my personality.”
Q. Do you have any combat experience? I see you were awarded the Air Medal.
A. Henger: “I was awarded that the Air Medal for air to ground combat sorties.”
Q. After having so many different positions during your career, what were your thoughts about coming to a training unit?
A. Henger: “I was ecstatic. My last time with the 101, my time as an instructor. I really enjoy teaching, and I think it’s awesome to be able to shape and mold these pilots for the future of the Marine Corps aviation.”
Q. What is the process to become a pilot?
A. Henger: “After the Marine leaves The Basic School or the Naval Academy, they are sent to Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida, for their initial flight training. The pilot will be selected for what category of flight whether it be jets, helicopters or the heavy’s like the C-130. At Pensacola, they are taught the basics of flight, general aviation skills, FAA regulations and how to speak on the radio. The training is done with the T-34C Turbomento, a military version of the Beechcraft Bonanza.
After this, the pilots will head to their specific type of aircraft for further training, in this case, it’s the T-45 Goshawk, which will be the pilots first jet aircraft. Here they start really learning more advanced training and the beginning of military tactics. It’s here at this level, where the pilots are then selected for flying in the Hornets, the AV-8B Harriers, or the EA-6B Prowlers. After this training is when the pilots for Hornets are sent here to start learning to be proficient fighter pilots before being sent out to the fleet.”
Q. With all of this training, how long between Pensacola, getting their Gold Wings and coming to the 101?
A. Henger: “About three years now.”
Q. How long are they with the 101?
A. Henger: “Too long, they are suppose to be here for 44 days, but right now, it’s taking about 75, because of the assets that are available.”
Q. So it’s almost 3/4 quarters of his six-year commitment in training, before hitting the fleet?
A. Henger: “Well it’s six years after “winging” (the pilot receives his wings).”
Q: So your instructor pilots are pulled from all over the fleet, including the “Top Gun” school?
A. Henger: “Yes, they are either division leads or come from the Weapons Training Instructors course.”
Q. Does the Sharpshooters unit train for carrier qualifications (learning to land on aircraft carriers)?
A. Henger: “Yes, but they will have already have some experience of landing on the carriers when they did their training in the T-45s. But, with us, this is the first time they will do it with the F/A-18.”
Q: I’m not sure if I read it somewhere, or just hear some scuttlebutt (Naval/Marine slang for “rumors”), that the 101 will be standing down and decommissioning in 2017. If that’s true, then the Sharpshooters will not be flying the new F-35B Lightning IIs?
A. Henger: “The current plan I’ve seen is that the 101 will stand down in or around 2017. It depends on how the build-up of the F-35 goes. So right now, VMFA 121 (the Green Knights) out in Yuma is being built up with F-35s, and they are roughly on track. You have the training command, right now, the 501 at Eglin Air Force Base, and they are scheduled to head to MCAS Beaufort next year. But everything depends on things staying on track.
There is supposed to be two training squadrons, 501 and 502, and I think that the 502 will operate out of MCAS Yuma. But to answer your question, 2017 is when it’s supposed to happen, but that is anyone’s guess. Depending on the budget and all of that other stuff.”
Q: I’ve noticed on weekends, when your pilots are out training and going to different civilian airports, that you are switching out the pilots, each day. Is this a way to have more pilots move through the training and getting more flight hours for the pilots?
(MCAS Miramar has an agreement with the local neighborhoods, that unless it’s a major training exercise or an emergency, then on weekends, MCAS Miramar shuts down it’s flightline, to lessen the noise from the base. So any Marine planes will be sent out to airports such as Long Beach or even out to Phoenix, AZ, so that the training can continue.)
A. Henger: “I actually came up with this when I took over the command, with budgets being what they are, the Navy Safety Center requires the pilots to have a certain amount of hours in a 30-day period or their efficiency ratings will go down. It’s around 11 or 12 hours of flight time, and that drives our OpNav and our 100-hour requirement. Due to this and some other issues, I found that some pilots were getting 15-20 hours of flight time while others were only getting 3-4 hours, so to even out the hours, it made sense to swap out the pilots, and this was a way to offer more aircrews an opportunity to fly. That’s a mitigation strategy and it’s been very successful. We’re right back up, where we should be, and I feel much more comfortable now.”
Q: With sequestration in place it would seem that the Marine Corps has done a much better job in budgeting for training, than the other services who have shut down entire squadrons and other units. It looks like training for the Marines has not slowed down at all. Has the Marine Corps done a better job of budgeting or is it that the Marines always have the smaller budget so nothing has changed?
A. Henger: (He laughs out loud) I don’t think we’ve budgeted better. It’s our budget, it is typically something I’ve never seen attacked. You know, we’re a Navy/Marine budget, so I have both services putting pilots through, and in my career, I’ve never seen our budget reduced, or cut back to where I can’t do what I need to do.”
Q: One last question, sir. I see the pilots heading out over the ocean for their training flights and occasionally out towards the deserts. Are they conducting any live fire training?
A. Henger: We do use San Clemente Island from time to time along with the air-to-air and air-to-ground ranges out near El Centro, CA or Yuma, AZ, depending on what’s available to us.
I would like to thank not only Lt. Col Chris Henger for his time, gracefulness and openness, but also to 1st Lt. Chad Hill, the Asst. Public Affairs for the 3rd Marine Air Wing and MCAS Miramar for helping this interview take place.