May 9, 2012 (by SSgt. Heather Skinkle) - February marked the start of a historic journey for the 124th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron composed of Airmen from the 132nd Fighter Wing, Iowa Air National Guard.
Maj. Todd Pierce, a pilot with the 451st EFS, inspects the bombs and missiles on F-16C block 30 #86-0327 from the 124th FS at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan on April 5th, 2012. [USAF photo by SSgt. David Salanitri]
A close air support reset kicked off their two-month deployment to Afghanistan, but along the way, the Airmen proved they have a knack to handle more than one challenge at a time.
The Guardsmen traveled from their native Des Moines home station to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, where they were tasked to beddown the first U.S.F-16 Fighting Falcon unit at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan. This logistical challenge meant they would have to quickly move more than 600 personnel and 300 cargo increments a distance of more than 518 miles. Overall, the CAS
reset, a hefty short-notice tasking, went smoothly despite the unique challenges.
"Our manning was set months ahead of time, then we were thrown a curve ball of moving the entire squadron hundreds of miles to the south," said Lt. Col. Travis Acheson, 124th EFS commander. "Then two of our pilots were taken out of our squadron and given special positions as a wing weapons officer and a wing standards and evaluations officer, under the 451st Air Expeditionary Wing."
Fortunately, there was a pilot who helped fill the void left by the manning losses. Brig. Gen. Scott L. Dennis, KAF and 451st Air Expeditionary Wing commander, stepped in to offer his help and support for the move.
"He became my number one squadron pilot," said Acheson. "It's great to inherit a guest pilot who immediately becomes your most experienced pilot."
The beddown might have been a daunting task for a less experienced squadron, but this team stayed tightly focused. They've upheld an impressive 100 percent air tasking order completion rate, not missing a beat during the CAS reset and throughout the deployment, said Acheson.
Clear for landing
Keeping jets in the air required looking to the ground to ensure F-16-friendly airfield conditions exist. The CAS reset team worked with KAF management officials to establish standard operating procedures and made airfield alterations to accommodate the aircraft.
"All the checklists, publications, academics, ground training, briefings, intelligence processes, supplements to Air Force instructions, and many other things have to be redone to make them specific to F-16s," said Lt. Col. Mike Barten, 124th EFS director of operations.
Standard operating procedures won't be the only evidence of the F-16 move to Kandahar. In addition to airfield upgrades, two full-time sweepers and three new sweeping machines are a must for keeping the Foreign Object Damage off the flight line and maintaining the F-16's mission capability.
"[The move] was a major adjustment. There were a lot of infrastructure and logistical changes that needed to be made, most of which weren't done prior to the aircraft's arrival, so we had to really implement procedures and processes to make this all happen," said Tech. Sgt. Jacob Hermanson, tactical aircraft mechanic work leader from Indianola, Iowa on his fourth deployment. "Everything from supply and parts, to picking up FOD on the ramps had to adjust -- those are things this location was not used to having to do."
Additional FOD procedures, such as expanding flight line perimeters and increased FOD checks, were also enacted. Another necessity for the airfield is a trim PAD
, a vital F-16 airfield component used for securing aircraft for engine checks and can accommodate up to 100,000 pounds of thrust.
Innovation to the front
The 132nd FW is the first F-16 unit to utilize GBU-38 Version 5, joint direct attack munitions at a deployed location. This is the first American F-16 unit to fly with the GBU-38 Version 5 and use it during combat, Acheson said.
This new precision guided munitions helps close the distance between what used to be an out-of-range target.
"We've got this unique weapon that doesn't give the enemy sanctuary," said Lt. Col. Shawn Ford, 451st Expeditionary Operations Group deputy commander.
1st Lt. Ryan Stott said it isn't just about the offense though. Defense is everything to someone with boots on the ground outside the wire.
"I had a different perspective as a crew chief inside the wire," said Stott. "As a pilot you get to see Afghanistan and be outside the wire and talk to the guys on the ground. It's very rewarding when a service member on the ground tells you he's glad you're here, whether it's dropping bombs or passing by as a show of force."
From the new lieutenant to the most experienced maintainer, the entire squadron worked together to go home with a winning record.
"It has been very rewarding to see how well everyone has adapted and excelled at the mission," said Barten. "I'm especially proud of our young wingmen and flight leads."
This unit didn't just move an entire F-16 unit to Kandahar; they're also bringing the block 30
F-16 into the 21st century.
The block 30 F-16 airframe may be a quarter of a century old, but its avionics are continually upgraded. The Guard and Reserve keep it up-to-date and due to the work of the Air National Guard Air Reserve Component Test Center, the block 30 F-16 is the only U.S. F-16 that has a moving map capability.
"We have block 50
F-16s in our arsenal with some great capabilities that I don't want to take away from, but with the block 30 F-16s, to have that moving map capability in the jet provides our pilots with the situational awareness they need to get through a very complex airspace structure," said Ford.
This isn't your standard road map; instead it's a high-tech aid that allows any pilot to concentrate less on where they're going and more on the intended target and threats to friendly forces, said Ford.
"There's a lot of information that can be overlayed onto the existing geographical map in the cockpit," said Ford. "I put a lot of time and effort, with a lot of people's help, to overlay all that information onto the maps we fly with. So when our pilots are flying they can call up this moving map and see where the tankers are for refueling stops, the kill boxes, the forward operating bases, combat outposts, and even boundaries changing from one controlling agency to another."
This is the first time we've ever flown with that level of detail in our maps, added Ford.
Ultimately, the maps help guide the pilots to where they need to go and newly installed weapons systems are helping guide bombs on target while preventing civilian casualties.
"The U.S. military has taken very seriously the fact that when we drop bombs there is a high potential of destroying buildings and we don't know who are in those buildings," said Ford. "So the Air Force has developed this low collateral-damage bomb."
Others will benefit from the team's lessons learned and diligent work because they've already started a free flow of information to other units.
"Other Guard units have caught wind of this capability and they've started asking us for details so they can replicate it in their F-16s," said Acheson. "This upgraded map, it's like going from watching the Super Bowl on a black and white television screen to the next day watching it on a high definition flat-screen TV."
Upgraded avionics is a bonus, but the nuts and bolts basics have to be attended to carefully.
"Your focus is to fix the jets, to get them in the air so the pilots can put bombs on target," said Maj. Trent Twedt, 451st Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Unit officer in charge.
"We find a way to adapt and overcome," Hermanson added. "My job is to be an inspection element work leader. We perform phase inspections on the F-16 and our overall goal is to provide air worthiness for the air crew every 300 flying hours. We find the discrepancies and we correct them."
But even with the long hours, the maintenance Airmen are finding time to bond with each other and develop friendships such as with Belgian maintenance counterparts on base, said Twedt.
Total team involvement, between unit members or between coalition forces, has been the key to this unit's success.
"Our pilot came up with a valuable idea, worked with maintenance to get it on the plane, and executed it flawlessly," said Acheson.
Like their successes, this unit's firsts keep stacking up.
"The 132nd FW should be very proud of what their unit accomplished," stated General Dennis. "Their talents, expertise and professionalism helped this coalition continue to take the fight to the enemy."
"To go out there and perform at the level we have . . . to be able to deliver what the ground commander wants, and hit the right targets without any issues is what we hoped for," Ford said.
It takes a team and the dedicated efforts of the entire unit to help keep U.S. service members, coalition forces, and residents of Kandahar Province safe.
"I attribute most of the unit's success to our maintenance group's performance and hard work," said Barten. "They always have a mission-ready jet waiting. Our intel, aircrew flight equipment and operations support personnel are just as impressive."
"The difference between the Iowa Guard and most, is the way we support the mission and how we do it effectively, with no dropped sorties or maintenance cancellations," he said. "We perform each mission completely and fully. We prove it at home with our training, and then we come over here and we do it the exact same way."
The 132nd FW has since returned to Iowa, but the hallmarks of hard work and preparation they left here will remain for future rotations of Airmen supporting the mission, every day.