November 6, 2005 (by Capt. Thomas Crosson) - Providing security over the Baltic countries of Eastern Europe is no easy task, but the 23rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron is constantly training, even while deployed, to be able to effectively address any airborne threat to the area.
The 23rd EFS is providing 24-hour air policing coverage over Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The 120 personnel assigned to the 23rd EFS are responsible for ensuring its fleet of four F-16s is maintained, armed and ready to launch at a moments notice while working at a bare-base environment under challenging weather conditions.
has taken on the task of providing around-the-clock security over the skies of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia since the countries joined the NATO alliance in March, 2004. The 23rd EFS is responsible for protecting more than 97,000 square miles of airspace over the Baltics.
NATO’s partner nations share in this duty on a rotational basis. So far, Air Forces from the England, Belgium
, the Netherlands
and Germany have deployed here to fill 90-day tours. Poland
will take over for the 23rd EFS in late December.
The 23rd EFS relies upon an air monitoring station near Kaunas, Lithuania, and a combined air operations center outside Stuttgart, Germany, to provide them with a real-time assessment of the air traffic over the Baltics. If an unidentified aircraft enters the monitored airspace, these stations can direct the 23rd EFS to launch their F-16s to intercept the aircraft. Three pilots, a life support specialist, an operations resource manager and 11 aircraft maintainers are on alert at all times.
Once an aircraft is intercepted, the pilots run through a checklist if items to determine if the aircraft is in distress or if its intentions are hostile.
"Our primary focus is to contact the pilot and determine the status of the aircraft," said Lt. Col. David Youtsey, 23rd EFS detachment commander. "Unidentified aircraft can enter the airspace for a variety of reasons. A pilot could be lost or could have problems with their communications equipment. That’s why it’s important to try and communicate with the pilot before we determine our next course of action."
While the pilots aren’t flying, they are preparing flight plans, ensuring the airfield remains safe and working alongside maintenance personnel to ensure that the aircraft are prepped and ready to go.
"You never know when we’ll be told to scramble," said Capt. Sean Penrod, a pilot with the 23rd Fighter Squadron, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, currently assigned to the 23rd EFS. "We sleep with our G-suits, harnesses and helmets by our cots, or sometimes we leave our gear in the jet. Everywhere I go in the alert facility, I have to think about the fastest way to get to the jet."
In the event of a scramble call, the alert maintainers will rush to their assigned aircraft to assist with the launch. The maintainers are equally important to insuring the 23rd EFS readiness throughout the deployment.
"This is entirely different than home station flying," said Master Sgt. Tracy Hatch, a 23rd Aircraft Maintenance Unit production supervisor, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, currently assigned to the 23rd EFS. "We keep the jets here at a higher state of readiness then we would at home."
During operations at home station, pilots typically accept their aircrafts right before they begin their pre-flight checklists. Accepting the jet involves the pilot and crew chief reviewing maintenance paperwork and spot-checking the aircraft’s critical systems.
"A pilot here can walk out to a jet anytime and practically take right off," said Sergeant Hatch. "A lot of the pins and covers we would normally keep in place until moments before takeoff are already removed. It forces our alert crew chiefs to be on their toes and allows them to get the jets off the ground quicker."
But for the 23rd EFS maintainers, the departure from their routine home station schedule is welcomed.
"This is exciting, its fast paced," said Senior Airman Chirs Mustard, a 23rd AMU crew chief currently assigned to the 23rd EFS. "We get to do things here we don’t regularly do at home like work with live munitions and work directly with other maintenance and weapons specialists. This has been a great experience."