BELLE CHASSE, La. — Lt. Keith Frost and his family moved to the New Orleans area 20 months ago for his tour as a naval flight officer aboard E-2C Hawkeyes based at the Belle Chasse air station. Military assignments are generally short-lived among active duty military personnel, but for Frost, this one was a bit shorter than expected.
On March 31, the Navy formally strikes from its list of units Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 77. Known as the Nightwolves, VAW-77 was formed in 1995 as the only Navy squadron solely dedicated to stemming the flow of illegal narcotics into the United States.
But with the war in Iraq over and the war in Afghanistan winding down, VAW-77 has fallen to Pentagon budget cuts.
“It’s been a real honor to be part of these guys,” Frost said of the squadron mates who he views as being among the Navy’s most experienced in the E-2C Hawkeye airplanes.
In what would be the Nightwolves’ final gathering before turning out the lights at month’s end, the squadron’s remaining members, their families and even those who’ve served in the unit previously gathered Saturday in their hangar at the Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base to ceremonially decommission VAW-77.
Its symbolic end came at 10:50 a.m. March 8, when the squadron’s executive officer, Cmdr. Russ Herrell, gave the order to a petty officer standing nearby. “Bell ringer, ring eight bells,” Herrell told the petty officer, who complied in following a Navy tradition that signifies the end of a successful watch, or duty.
“Nightwolves, for the last time, fall out,” Herrell then told the sailors and aviators in dismissing them from the ceremonial duty.
During its almost 18 years of existence, VAW-77’s air crews flew 12,600 sorties over the Caribbean and Latin America. The Navy credits it for intercepting $17 billion worth of cocaine and marijuana that was being smuggled into the United States during its numerous missions supporting other agencies, from the U.S. Coast Guard to the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the Nightwolves’ 13th and final commanding officer, Cmdr. Todd Heyne.
With its airplanes that are equipped with sensors contained in the 25-foot “rotodome” atop the fuselages, the aircrews were able to track vessels suspected of carrying narcotics or even participating in human trafficking.
While based in Georgia before moving to Belle Chasse in 2008, the Nightwolves put the sensors to work over New Orleans-area skies immediately following Hurricane Katrina, helping manage the flow of search and rescue helicopters whose crews were hoisting stranded residents from rooftops in flooded neighborhoods. The Nightwolves are credited with saving more than 1,800 people.
It is the first Navy airplane unit to base out of war-torn Colombia, said Heyne, who has commanded the squadron since October 2011. During his command tour, the squadron has helped interdict $2.1 million in illicit drugs and helped in the arrest of 32 “narco-terrorists,” according to the citation that accompanied the Meritorious Service Medal that Heyne received Saturday.
The squadron routinely sent its six Hawkeyes and personnel to El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It has been nominated to receive the Meritorious Unit Award, a nomination that is pending, said Rear Adm. Douglas Asbjornsen, commander of Naval Air Forces Reserve. He used the word “staggering” to describe the narcotics smugglers VAW-77 helped stop.
“It’s a loss to New Orleans. We’re sad to leave,” said Cmdr Todd Heyne, VAW-77’s 13th and final commanding officer.
“You found them,” Asbjornsen said during the ceremony. “You did well.”
Hints that its end was coming popped up last year, when VAW-77 was not funded in the Navy’s proposed fiscal 2013 budget. Capt. James Nichols, who commands Tactical Support Wing, VAW-77’s parent unit, said Saturday it was initially viewed as a drill but was confirmed when the Navy’s human resources organization, the Bureau of Naval Personnel, stopped assigning sailors to the unit.
Attempts to save the squadron were unsuccessful, including from Louisiana’s congressional delegation, which worked behind the scenes to find funding to keep the unit.
Nichols added levity to the moment, saying that billions of dollars in illegal drugs the squadron helped seize could not be diverted as a revenue source for VAW-77. “The Navy just would not let us sell the drugs to save the squadron,” he joked.
Citing “budgetary constraints,” the Navy has said it had to weigh the VAW-77 mission with its larger responsibility of protecting the seas. The Navy has also said it has other resources to devote to the war on drugs and human trafficking in the Caribbean and Latin America.
The squadron moved to Belle Chasse in 2008, after the Navy shut down Naval Air Station, Atlanta, in the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure round. Members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation have been seeking other units to move to Belle Chasse, which now has an available hangar and administrative space that was renovated for VAW-77.
“We have had some groups come in and look at it,” said Capt. Jack Hill, the air station’s commanding officer. “I’m not at liberty to say who.”
With few exceptions, the squadron’s more than 100 full time and reserve personnel are transferring to other units. The 55 civilians who worked on the airplanes, all Northrup Grumman contractors, are out of work. Their leader, John Carlin, declined to comment. The squadron’s six Hawkeyes already have been assigned to other squadrons — VAW-77 made its last flight in January.
Heyne has been reassigned to the Pentagon from Belle Chasse, where he said the residents greeted him and his squadron mates with “nothing but open arms.”
“It’s a loss to New Orleans,” Heyne said. “We’re sad to leave.”
Frost’s next assignment is at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, where he will be in a squadron testing the Navy’s newest generation of Hawkeye airplanes, the E-2D model.
“It’s sad, but it’s the way things go,” Frost said. “We took it in stride, but we finished the mission.”