July 20, 2009 (by 2nd Lt. Emily Chilson) - Las Vegas may have a reputation for fun and games, but when it comes to Red Flag exercises, there is no room for messing around, especially for the new guys.
USAF F-16C block 50 #91-0359 from the 77th FS taxis back from a training mission at Red Flag 09-4 on July 14th, 2009. [USAF photo by 2nd Lt. Emily Chilson]
The very purpose of Red Flag is to train new Airmen - especially pilots - to plan and fight in large force employments, or LFEs.
For Lt. Col. Ross "Rosco" Anderson, Red Flag 09-4 Air Expeditionary Wing Operations Group commander, his first Red Flag in July 1996, was a whole new ball game when it came to flying.
"I was completely overwhelmed by the amount of activity going on at my first sortie," he said. "I was just trying to keep up. As the two weeks went along I know I got better, but Red Flag served its purpose very well."
Captain Taylor "Nightmare" Blevins, 77th Fighter Squadron pilot and Winston-Salem, N.C., native, is currently flying the F-16CJ
in his first Red Flag exercise here to prepare for combat overseas.
While attending your first Red Flag exercise is a feat in itself, it took years of training for Captain Blevins to get here. After graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2005, Captain Blevins attended a year and a half of Undergraduate Pilot Training at Sheppard AFB
, Texas, and then the B Course in San Antonio at Lackland AFB for one year.
Now, as one of the 77th "Gamblers" stationed at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Captain Blevins experiences what it's like to fight a conventional war. Compared to the conditions he flies in at Shaw, the terrain, weather and training missions at Red Flag are quite different.
"Shaw is lots of cities, lots of telephone poles and towers, and Shaw has no real terrain," he said. "Up in Nevada, in the range, there are few cities and lots of good terrain, mountains we can hide behind, and flat lands."
The scenarios start Beyond Visual Range, or BVR, and though pilots would like to keep it that way, there are so many aggressors, or 'bad guys,' that sometimes dogfights are unavoidable. Dogfights are technically referred to as Air Combat Maneuvering, or ACM, but over the radios, pilots would say 'going to the merge.'
"What makes Red Flag so valuable is you can never have this many assets or moving parts in training," Captain Blevins said. "We train daily to fight this kind of war, but until we're out here it's nearly impossible to replicate."
Also difficult to replicate, is the fact that allied units fly with U.S. counterparts at Red Flag. This time around, and Captain Blevins' first time to fly alongside U.S. allies, it's the Israeli Air Force.
"It's been neat to see the Israeli's different perspective," he said. "They have some different rules, and they're good at what they do, there's no question about that."
From mission planning and briefings, to sorties against red air, or 'enemy' aircraft, Captain Blevins and his comrades have the opportunity to practice all the aspects of fighting in a combat environment.
Shadowing him on a typical day at Red Flag, it's clear that an extensive amount of preparation and planning goes into the fight. Mission planning happens the day before the sortie, and is a large-scale effort that includes input from each unit.
"At home station we mission plan usually the day prior also," Captain Blevins said. "But this is a lot more intricate and involved."
With four different types of aircraft - F-15s, F-16s, E-3s and KC-135s - from about nine different units, the mission plan is definitely bound to be intricate. However, even with this many participants, Red Flag 09-4 is smaller than most Red Flags.
On the days he flies Captain Blevins shows several hours prior to take-off in order to get ready. His first stop is a pre-mission mass briefing, where all units come together to run through every facet of the mission.
The briefing is formally structured and covers the flight step-by-step, including the weather forecast, rules of engagement, the order of units departing and the time for each aircraft's takeoff. Pilots listen closely and take notes on any portion of the brief which may need further clarification before the flight, because missing something could be serious.
"Basically just keeping your situational awareness up has been challenging with so many moving parts," Captain Blevins said. "If you're not in your altitude block, then running into someone is a very real possibility. I haven't seen any close calls this entire Red Flag but the potential is definitely there."
After the mass briefing, the pilots break off into their units for smaller briefings that may be necessary pertaining to their piece of the mission. These briefings happen in each unit's respective vaults, which are classified areas within the Red Flag building.
Once all the briefings are complete, and questions are answered, Captain Blevins heads out to the locker room on the flight line to suit up for the flight and then step, or walk, to his jet where he begins his pre-flight inspection of the aircraft.
Captain Blevins' maintenance crew chief is waiting at the jet and helps him test the aircraft to ensure all the systems and avionics are working properly before he taxis to the runway. Although KC-135 refuelers are a part of each mission, taking off with a faulty fuel system could be a big problem.
While Captain Blevins is flying, a live feed is shown in the Red Flag auditorium so the rest of the team can watch the mission play out.
When he lands, about an hour and a half later depending on mission requirements, it's back to the Red Flag building for a debrief, and to hear the results of the mission - who lived and who 'died.'
"Each package [a group of aircraft] commander comes back and says this did or did not work after trying it," Captain Blevins said. "Each mission is a little bit different, but they're not completely different."
The chance to drop live munitions in the range is something most pilots don't get to experience often. At Red Flag, live munitions are used in many of the training missions.
"We don't drop a lot of live munitions at Shaw," Captain Blevins said. "We mostly drop inert munitions."
Although this was his first Red Flag, Captain Blevins was the only pilot who had the opportunity to drop a live GBU-12 on a moving, remote-controlled vehicle in the Nevada Test and Training Range during this exercise.
"It's a vehicle that moves on a track," he said. "And this is something most people have never done."
Since Captain Blevins was the only one given this chance, there was bound to be some additional pressure to accomplish the mission.
"Only because of being ridiculed by my friends," he said. "The whole squadron watches the video at the mass de-brief because it records through the targeting pod on my F-16. So you don't want to look like a clown out there in the mass de-brief."
The greatest challenge Captain Blevins has encountered at Red Flag is the very thing that draws units to this exercise in the first place - the LFE, with about 50 aircraft in a certain air space at a certain time.
"Large numbers of aircraft that are all in the same piece of sky demands you keep situational awareness on them and where you're supposed to be," he said. "It's really not possible to keep track of where everyone is, so you need to know where you're supposed to be."
Although units train these flying tactics and techniques at home station, the reality of their sorties are nothing compared to the environment and realistic enemy defenses in the NTTR.
"At Shaw we train to do Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses and Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses - that's our primary mission," he said. "And we basically have notional threats, so we have Surface-to-Air Missiles that we train against. Half the time the SAMs are completely made up. Best-case-scenario the SAMs are out there actually emitting, but there's nobody in there pretending to shoot at you, so you're desensitized because you don't feel threatened."
However, at Red Flag, SAM
sites in the NTTR are manned and operated. The sites have the capability to record video footage of the aircraft that fly against them so after each flight, the Red Flag staff can tell pilots whether or not they were 'killed.'
Despite the fast-paced intensity of Red Flag, this environment is the kind that an operational fighter pilot thrives in. Colonel Dean "Norm" Anderson, Red Flag 09-4 Air Expeditionary Wing commander, recalls walking into his first Red Flag in July 1992, and, holding his hands out wide, said his eyes were about that big.
"You're flying with a huge number of airplanes and the threat array that you have here is so much more than you have at your home station," he said. "And when you survive your first and second mission, you feel like you're somebody and your confidence goes way up. And you want that as a fighter pilot. You want someone confident who's going to survive the mission, because hopefully the scenario here is much more difficult."
And speaking of survivability, one might expect there to be friendly competition between the nine units at Red Flag 09-4, but because of the seriousness of the exercise, each unit is focused on working together to get the job done.
"There's not as much competition as I thought there would be," Captain Blevins said. "But it really doesn't go much further than each aircraft having a specific role and wanting to make sure you do your part in that role."
"Without the other guys here we wouldn't be able to do the mission," he said. "Without each person taking care of their piece of the puzzle, it would all collapse. I feel like I was prepared. Every sortie we fly back at home is training for this type of stuff."
Red Flag 09-4 began Monday, July 13, and will run through Friday.