EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Four Strike Fighter Squadron 101 Sailors were formally advanced to chief petty officer at the squadron's first chief petty officer pinning ceremony here Sept. 14.
Members of VFA-101, the Navy's first F-35 squadron, gathered to witness new chief petty officers Robert Powell, John Adair, Chris Cid and Roberto Sanchez, make the formal transition from working uniforms and utility covers to khakis, chief's anchor collar devices and matching khaki-colored combination caps.
"In the Navy, we separate very distinctly between an E-6 and an E-7," said Chief Petty Officer Sean Belt, the leading chief for VFA-101's aviation maintenance administration division. "They're chief petty officers. They're never referred to as E-7s, because it's such a monumental leap for a Navy enlisted man or woman's career. They go from middle leadership to senior leadership. They wear a completely different uniform and are treated differently. To become part of this brotherhood, what we consider to be the largest fraternity in the world, it doesn't get any bigger in a Navy enlisted person's career."
Before the pinning ceremony, the new chiefs went through a six-week induction process, which focused on leadership, management, team building and standards enforcement. They also received information on naval traditions and heritage, physical fitness and programs and policy.
Each chief was guided through the process by a sponsor, a more experienced chief who participated in an induction prior to his or her own pinning.
All aspects of the pinning ceremony, from a detailed explanation to the audience about the significance of becoming a Navy chief, to pinning on the collar devices and the sponsor's meticulous placement of the combination cap on the new chief's head, were treated with respect and reverence for the tradition.
VFA-101's joint military command is the first duty assignment where the four new chiefs will begin facing the many challenges of senior leadership.
The squadron, a component of the 33rd Fighter Wing, stood up in October 2010. The 'Grim Reapers' are made up of 52 Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps personnel, responsible for providing training curriculum and maintenance support to its F-35C pilots and aircraft.
Adair, an aviation electronics technician responsible for an aircraft's electrical system maintenance, realized the full weight of the career turning point.
"It's a big change, going from middle management to senior management," said the 14-year veteran. "There's not really anyone to fall back on now. Before, if I had a question and I didn't have the answer, I could go ask 'the chief.' Now I am 'the chief.' Now I have to use my knowledge and experience, as well as rely on my brothers and sisters in the chiefs' ranks, to help me out."
Belt said VFA-101's first pinning ceremony brought other joint organizations together to help recognize and roll out new leadership.
"We're extremely happy to be doing this for the first time ever - to have this first pinning ceremony here, as we're standing up VFA-101," he said. "We united all the chiefs' messes between Naval School, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, the F-35 Academic Training Center, and VFA-101's Fleet Integration Team as a group, to get these brand new chiefs through our induction process and trained to be chief petty officers."
VFA-101 also invited two fellow joint servicemembers who showed an interest in the Navy tradition to participate in the induction process and the pinning ceremony and become honorary chiefs.
After receiving approval from the Navy's Fleet Forces Command, Gunnery Sgt. David Hill and Sgt. 1st Class Todd Wilson, instructors at Naval School, EOD, completed the induction process and were pinned with their Navy counterparts.
The induction process and ceremony gave Wilson a deeper understanding of one of the Navy's most sacred customs. He called it 'going from sergeant first class to sergeant first chief.'
"This ceremony is special to me because as an Army guy, we don't get the opportunity to do something like this," he said. "EOD school is a joint environment, and we work closely with the Navy. This recognition provides me a better way to support my fellow Navy EOD techs. The fact that I completed six weeks of induction training and my fellow Navy chiefs accept and embrace me as one of their own makes this pretty special."
At the conclusion of the ceremony, the four chief selectees and the two honorary participants marched in single file to the red carpet, adorned with ceremonial bullets and lined with six posted chiefs, three on each side, to serve as ceremonial sideboys.
The sharp call of the boatswain's whistle prompted each new chief to walk the length of the carpet, with salutes in unison rendered by both the new chief and the sideboys.
The walk concludes the time-honored transition process and signifies the beginning of permanent membership in the Navy's chief community.