May 12, 2010 (by Capt. Shannon Collins) - The crewchief and pilot perform one last, all-encompassing inspection. Everything checks out. The weapons load crew members carefully yet quickly mount live Joint Direct Attack Munitions GBU-38s onto the F-16C Fighting Falcons.
USAF F-16C block 40 #90-0734 from the 80th FS takes off from Eielson AFB for a mission during Red Flag-Alaska on April 16th, 2010.
The crewchief directs the pilot out his hangar, snapping a salute as the jet taxis to the end of the runway, where the pins are pulled, arming the weapons. The pilot takes off and weaves his Fighting Falcon in and out of the snow-capped mountain ranges, looking for his prey. This could be Alaska. This could be Afghanistan. This is Red Flag.
Red Flag exercises, this one hosted by Eielson Air Base, Alaska, are very realistic aerial war games mounted to give pilots from various backgrounds and countries the opportunity to practice and refine their skills for real combat situations. It is a multi-service, multi-platform coordinated combat operations exercise and corresponds to the designed operational capability of the participating units.
Airmen with the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, deployed to Alaska to participate in this realistic 10-day air combat training exercise. Pilots with the 80th Fighter Squadron Headhunters, known as "Juvats," trained with a variety of platforms to prepare for combat.
The Juvats flew a total of 208 sorties during Red Flag-Alaska, achieving a 99 percent sortie production rate, the highest of all participating fighters and bombers, said Lt. Col. Jack Sine, 80th FS
The squadron's Airmen also had 60 air-to-air "kills," dropped more than 46 inert bombs, shot more than 80 simulated anti-aircraft missiles and dropped 240 simulated bombs. They also dropped lives munitions Distant Frontier, a five-day exercise after Red Flag-Alaska that ended May 7.
The airspace and ranges used in Red Flag-Alaska cover approximately the same square mileage as South Korea
Participating in exercises like Red Flag gives the Juvat Airmen training they wouldn't normally get in the Republic of Korea.
For Capt. Eric Freienmuth, 80th FS chief of scheduling, this was his third time to Red Flag-Alaska. He's been with the 80th FS for eight months, flying the F-16 for five years and has flown in combat operations in Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"Being able to plan, fly and execute with tankers, other fighters, bombers and multiple other support assets for two weeks straight provides everyone in the squadron, from the youngest wingman to the oldest instructor, an unparalleled experience to practice like we fight and then come back and derive useful and lasting lessons learned from the debriefs," said Captain Freienmuth.
This was also the third Red Flag-Alaska deployment for Capt. Jesse Proctor, 80th FS A Flight Commander. He's been with the 80th FS for a year and flying the F-16 for just over five years. He cites the training he receives as invaluable.
"We have nearly unrestricted use of air-to-ground ranges that allow us to employ heavy-weight and live munitions; this is difficult to obtain at many overseas bases," he said. "This training offers pilots a chance to participate in a large-force exercise much larger than we get to train to on a day-to-day basis. If we were to go to war tomorrow, we have to be able to fight to the scale that Red Flag facilitates. We don't get that at our local units. It's invaluable training for the Juvats."
Part of the deployment is the long flight from Kunsan to Eielson. It was the first Red Flag-Alaska deployment for Capt. Luke O'Sullivan, 80th FS scheduler. The 80th FS is his first operational F-16 assignment, and he's been assigned with the squadron for almost a year.
"I flew my longest sortie ever, lasting nearly eight hours," he said about the long flight to Alaska. "I had never flown more than about 1.8 hours previously, so I knew it was going to be a challenging flight. The flight was memorable. We took off at night and were able to see the sunrise during one of our eight in-flight refuelings.
"Flying at Red Flag is a unique opportunity because it lets us work in concert with other U.S. forces," he said. "Interoperating is one of the main strengths of the U.S. military, and having other units there, with no other task than to focus on tactics and employment for two weeks, gave everyone the chance to sharpen their skills in an environment that closely simulates combat. It is truly the best way we have to work together to validate our training back at Kunsan."
Red Flag-Alaska provides joint offensive counter-air, interdiction, close air support and large force employment training in a simulated combat environment. Each pilot gets "First 10 Missions" combat preparation and works with multi-asset large force employments. An Air Force analysis of operations during the Vietnam War showed that a pilot's chances of survival in combat dramatically increased after he completed 10 combat missions. Red Flag was initiated in 1975 to offer U.S. pilots the opportunity to fly 10 realistically-simulated combat missions in a safe training environment with measurable results.
"This is our opportunity to fly in as realistic a scenario as possible without actually being in combat," said Colonel Sine, who's been with the Air Force for 18 years and flying the F-16 for 14 years. "The Alaskan ranges have electronic warfare trainers, aggressor aircraft and ranges on which we can employ live weapons. Throughout the exercise, our aircraft faced a robust threat, including F-16 Aggressors simulating the most advanced fighters in the world today and surface threats representing surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. Every one of my pilots received an invaluable education in terms of capabilities, limitations, preferred tactics and integration that we would never have achieved in normal training in Korea."
He said the pilots also had the opportunity to feel the differences in the way the F-16 handles with actual bombs on the jet. They had to plan and execute contingencies for weather, heading restrictions and threat reactions. Most importantly, he said, they received real-time feedback on the accuracy of their deliveries. All of this training resulted in increased defensive effectiveness.
"Exercises like Red Flag-Alaska are the equivalent to the last scrimmage before the big game; we practice all of our wartime tasks and specialties," Colonel Sine said. "Everyone practices in the scrimmage, from the pilots to the maintainers, ammunitions and logistic Airmen who get us to and from the fight. This is how the Air Force trains and why we are the best in the world. For the Juvats, they gained that 'first 10 combat sorties' experience in a training environment. I'm confident that when we take the fight north, the Juvats will not only be lethal, but survivable. "
Preparing to deploy at a moment's notice is just one of the reasons why these Airmen train at Red Flag. For Staff Sgt. James Lee, 8th AMXS, 80th AMU, F-16 avionics craftsman, it was a chance to train his junior Airmen in performing maintenance while in a simulated wartime situation.
"Training is an everyday occurrence, but the opportunity to train in a simulated war environment is a great learning experience," said Sergeant Lee, who's been with the Air Force eight years and with the F-16s for four years. "It's a more critical and up-tempo environment in which to train new Airmen on how to safely and efficiently perform the mission in a wartime environment. I'm very proud of how my Airmen performed during the exercise."
Red Flag-Alaska also gave the weapons loaders the experience of loading live munitions.
"It was an excellent opportunity for weapons Airmen to show their talents in a high-paced exercise," said Staff Sgt. Adam Hatch, 8th AMXS, 80th AMU weapons load crew member. "The training there is effective and important."
The greatest sense of pride for the weapons loaders and crew chiefs was seeing the aircraft come back "empty."
"Being a crew chief is a great responsibility and when you see your aircraft taxi back with empty rails, you know we just put bombs on target. There's no better feeling in the world," said Staff Sgt. Joseph Collett, 8th AMXS, 80th AMU dedicated crew chief, who's been with the Air Force and the F-16 for six years.
As the Juvat pilots navigate the airspace, sharing it with multiple platforms, they focus in on their targets and engage. The Juvat crewchiefs and maintainers wait for their jets to return, hoping to see their jets come back "empty," to see their impact on the mission. They all work together to ensure the Wolf Pack is ready for war.