|CIVILIAN COMPANY AMONG LIST OF FIGHTERS IN JACKSONVILLE SKIES FOR NAVY TRAINING EXERCISE
January 29, 2015
By Clifford Davis
Many of the fighter planes Jacksonville residents have heard roaring through the skies aren't Navy planes.
In fact, they're not even military. They are Cold War-era fighters flown by a civilian company with ex-military pilots known as ATAC, or Airborne Tactical Advantage Company.
The U.S. military hires the firm to act as opposition forces for training exercises like the Navy is currently holding off the coast of Jacksonville.
"They're very competent and I know almost all of them," said Rear Adm. Andrew Lewis, commanding officer of Carrier Strike Group 12. "The vast majority of them are retired Navy and Air Force.
"They give good presentations and they are getting more and more capable in what they can present to us, particularly in electronic warfare areas that make things a challenge."
The group flies Israeli-made Kfir C2 fighters made in the 1970s and British Hawker Hunters of the late '50s.
The Kfirs were acquired after Israel produced a large number of the fighters, but shortly after retired them when they received U.S.-made F-15s and F-16s, according to ATAC pilot Rob "Nuts" Destasio.
"When we acquired them, they had about 1,800 hours," Destasio said. "A normal fighter goes for about 8,000 hours, something like that.
"It's a single-engine, supersonic fighter. It'll go about Mach 2.2 and over 50,000 feet."
For the pilots, ATAC gives them a chance to continue flying supersonic jets after their military careers are over.
"It's not an F/A-18," said ATAC pilot David "Chum" Baker, a former TOPGUN instructor. "That said, it's not a 767 either.
"It's still a fun airplane to fly."
Baker said the step down from Navy performance is only slight, like going from the NFL back to college.
"Sunday I launched at dawn and pretended to be a cruise missile against one of the destroyers in the strike group off the coast of Savannah and flying around at 300 feet and 600 knots," Baker said. "It's pretty cool still."
The group is currently operating out of Jacksonville Naval Air Station with as many as eight planes and 12 pilots. They know they have been heard in the surrounding areas.
"We've gone from just a few missions per day to a 36 hour cycle," Destasio said. "We started and went all the way through a 36 hour period.
"So at night, a lot of people in the neighborhoods were probably wondering what in the world was going on.
"That's somewhat unusual, but the current forces wanted a lot of night flying and we react to what the Navy needs us to do."
Though the men are now civilians, they're appearance and sense of humor still betrays their decades in the military.
David "Chum" Baker got his nickname after an unfortunate boating accident where his ankle was run over by a propeller, severing his achilles tendon.
"It's a brutal business," he said.