NAVAL AIR STATION OCEANA, Va. — Fighter Squadron Composite 12's F/A-18 Hornets sport one of the Navy's coolest paint jobs. The fuselage is camouflauged in white, gray and black splotches, with red stars on the fighters' wings and twin tails. These aren't your regular F/A-18s.

"I thought it was sexy as hell!" said Was the reaction that Master Chief Avionics Technician Anthony Macdonell on seeing the splinter camouflage of the squadron's Hornets for the first time. The paint scheme is made to mock up a Russian SU-35 fighter, one of the potential adversaries that U.S. Navy pilots may face. had the first time he saw the splinter camouflage of VFC-12’s F-18s. The white, gray and black pattern and the red stars on the fighters twin tails let’s anyone who sees the jets know that they are unique. And indeed they are.

The squadron's mission is as unique as its fighters. VFC-12, callsign "Ambush," is one of the Navy Reserve's three tactical Hornet squadrons, whose foremost mission is not unlike Viper in the movie "Top Gun," flying missions as adversaries like Russian bogeys to train Navy pilots readying for deployment. It is a critical mission flown by some of the fleet's oldest jets, and there are signals that the squadron's funding could be drying up. serving as the This VFC-12 is one of the three tactical F-18 squadrons that the Navy Reserve has. But VFC-12, call sign Ambush, main bread and butter is providing adversary training for carrier bound air wings. Indeed even that paint scheme is inspired to represent one of the Navy’s adversaries: a Russian SU-35 fighter jet.

It takes a certain breed and personality to be a fighter pilot at this squadron, which is a mix of active-duty and reservists. These aviators are hand-picked for their flying credentials and personality, in order that they'll fit into the tight-knit squadron. as well as  the swagger and confidence was very much apparent as I walked through Ambush’s spaces. Our escort, call sign Catmandu, is one of the few active duty fliers in the squadron and he is easily recognizable as a fighter pilot. Originally, an F-18 "Charlie" fleet pilot, he is filling his shore tour at VFC-12. As he leads us through the spaces (VFC-12 has just moved into a new hanger) he greats his fellows fliers with the laidback and casual atmosphere that is only found in the officer’s mess of certain communities in the Navy, and typified by naval aviators. It is an officer community that attracts pilots who want to fly, and they are hand-picked for their flying credentials and their personality.

"I think if you took any ready-room in the fleet and compared it to ours, you’d find we have way more experience," said Cmdr.ommander Dan Smelik, a selected reservist with the squadron who is a civilian pilot for FedEx. He's flown with Ambush for seven years. call sign "Smelikat," is an example of a VFC-12 Selected Reservist (SELRES) pilot. His civilian job is "flying packages back and forth" for FedEx, but he loves flying for Ambush. "I got Hornets right off the bat out of flight school…and rolled right into this job when I got off active duty, and I’ve been in [VFC-12] since 08."

Smelik, callsign "Smelikat," at has nearly just under 3,000 hours in the F/A-18 and he is a seasoned flier at a squadron known for them. VFC-12 often relies on reservists who fly drill weekends and attracts  typical of wealth of knowledge and experience Reservists bring to VFC-12. Relying on Reservists who only fly on drill weekends poses a unique challenge, but as Smelikat explains VFC-12 mitigates this by picking up fliers who "at the top of [their] game…and yes it is an elite group" VFC-12 also attracts graduates of the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School, a.k.a. known as Top Gun;  SELRES who haven't gone are routinely sent. and routinely sends SELRES who haven’t gone. In short as Smelikat describes VFC-12 "I think if you took any ready-room in the fleet and compared it to ours, you’d find we have way more experience."

VFC-12 is all about flying. Smelikat has been able to fly 21 out of his 22 years in the Navy and continues to fly fighters jets as a senior officer, which is both are extremely uncommon. He says the But what Smellikat loves almost as much as "flying a tactical aircraft, tactically" is the "comradery camaraderie and challenge" keep him going, adding that the as he explains in his fighter pilot laid back Cool Hand Luke style "the philosophy here is, this is cool."

In mid-October, the squadron was setting up for some training after a trip to Recently having returned from Fallon, Nevada. where they had trained fleet aircraft, the squadron environment had an air of a team returning from a win after an away game and preparing for the next game at home. Out back on the ramp, four of VFC-12s jets were parked in a neat row, their camouflage standing out from the gray Super Hornets taxiing beyond, splinter camouflage standing out against amongst the haze navy gray Super Hornets taxing behind them.

These VFC-12 jets have served as warhorses for decades. All of them are F/A-18 A-C Hornets, often known as legacy planes, that are nearing the end of their projected lifespan. Some planes are close to 8,000 hours, beyond Even though they look intimidating the jets are older F-18 A+ models built in the 1980s and many are close to having flown 8,000 hours – well beyond their original service life. Those have been extended via upkeep. Keeping these birds flying is a big part of the squadron's mission and often involves taking them down for maintenance; four Hornets are typically ready to fly of the 10 the squadron owns. projected lifespan. It also means that of the 10 jets that VFC-12 has on the books, only about 6 are ready to fly. With the Navy focusing on Super Hornets and the eventual introduction of the F-35 finding money and parts to keep these older birds flying is always a challenge. Nonetheless, The pilots and maintainers alike love the older birds, some even saying that the F/A-18A+ model is slightly more snappy then its newer F/A-18E Super Hornet cousin.

"I really wanted to get into the F/A-18 community…and there is tons of opportunity for SELRES to come drill with us," said Senior Chief Aviation Ordnanceman Daniel Sevigny, one of the many Full-Time Support sailors maintainers who keep these jets flying sophisticated missions.

Keeping the birds flying is a testament to the pride and dedication of the maintainers, many of whom are either Full-Time Support (FTS) or SELRES. An example of this is Senior Chief Aviation Ordnanceman Daniel Sevigny who has 19 years as a FTS sailor.  Sevigny said the squadron offers reservists the chance to earn qualifications and work with regular active-duty sailors and aviators at NAS Oceana.  explains that not only is there an opportunity for enlisted sailors to get qualifications, but because it’s located at NAS Oceana "there is an opportunity to mingle with the [regular active duty Navy] counterpart."  During its heyday the Reserve Air community boasted two carrier air wings on both coasts. Now it has a handful of squadrons and airplanes. Because of the rarity of tactical jets in the Navy Reserves, there is a sense of prestige and pride comes with wearing the VFC-12 patch. that goes into VFC-12. Sailors such as the senior chief look at their time in the squadron as something "they really wanted to get into…it’s also a place where you can get on the flight line and turn wrenches."

"Every time I man up I get, 'Go get 'em, sir!' and when I get back, 'Did you kick their butt!?' " said Cmdr. Steven Young, the commanding officer of VFC-12.

Sailors work on aircraft at VFC-12's hangar at NAS Occeana in Virginia Beach, Va., on Wednesday, October 28, 2015.
Sailors work on aircraft at VFC-12's hangar at NAS Occeana in Virginia Beach, Va., on Wednesday, October 28, 2015.

The squadron's Hornets are camouflaged with gray and white splotches to resemble foreign jets, like the Russian SU-35.

Photo Credit: Mike Morones/Staff

VFC-12 is led by Commander Steven Young and he opts to meet me in his ready room where outside a giant sign proudly claiming "Mig Alley" rests. Young is wearing his flight suit and when I ask him if he still flies, he laughs and answers "yes." On the right shoulder of his flight suit he wears a patch with a target over a Mig, signifying that he is a Top Gun graduate. Young certainly sets the tone of the squadron and smiles when he recounts how  The competitive and adversarial theme pervades the squadron, from the red stars on the jets to the "MiG Alley" sign in the ready room. is something that is present throughout the squadron, from the red stars on the jets to the stars on the headrests of the seats in the ready-room.  Young tolerates brashness from Ambush pilots. 

a level of flamboyance that is to be expected from pilots whose job it is to fly in Ambush, "We take ourselves pretty serious in this adversary role, in fact I have guys who want to wear old Soviet uniforms. There is a lot of pride in that."

Asked to sum up the capabilities of his pilots, Young said  Young carries through the bravado that oozes from the squadron and says "I think if you want to experience the quality people then I have coming here, "you’d have to go look at the Blue Angels to see if they got better folks."

But for all fighter pilot bravado, in the squadron the future of VFC-12 is not so certain. Other squadrons fly legacy Hornets, but Young said VFC-12 is not the only squadron that flies older "A" and "C" model F-18s, however, according to Young "we have the oldest jets, most of these jets came off the line in 1983 or 1984."

Extending the life and/or replacing the legacy Hornets has been on a constant discussion point. The service is extending some planes through extensive maintenance. However, officials are also moving to replace these older Hornets at NAS Oceana and it is not clear what will happen to the squadron's F/A-18s. The aviation Navy is eyeing some simulations to boost pilots' training. , with the Navy looking at extending the hours through intensive maintenance programs. However, even with Boeing keeping the Super Hornet Line open and the Navy’s decision to replace Legacy Hornets at Naval Air Station Oceana, what will happen to the F-18s of VFC-12 is not clear.

According to Young said "the Air Boss told me specifically, ‘We appreciate the value you bring to our deployment cycle, but finding it to be affordable is getting harder and harder to do.’ "  

Young thinks "When asked what Young sees as a way forward for the adversary mission: "[s]o they’ll probably be some crazy-ish concepts that come across like blending sims with actual flight time." In the meantime, as Ambush pilots will keep fleet fliers at the edge of their there seats. Whatever the future holds for the Legacy Hornets and VFC-12, till a decision is made, Ambush fliers will continue to fly adversary missions in their "sexy as hell" camouflaged jets. 

Naveed Jamali, a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve, is the author of the memoir, "How to Catch a Russia Spy."