October 3, 2009 (by Capt Randy Saldivar) - The unmistakable red, white and blue flag -- the flag with one star, a lone star -- swayed back and forth on the flagpole, wisped by the breeze that floats across the former Soviet territory .
Czech and American forces pose together for a photo in front of an F-16 and Czech Grippen and Alca on September 10th, 2009. Members of the Texas ANG's 149th FW were in the Czech Republic conducting mutual training as part of the National Guard's state partnership program. [USAF photo by SMSgt. Miguel Arellano]
The silence of the cool morning air was soon replaced with sounds of jet engines as the metal birds left their perches and took to the skies for another round of battle.
Less than 20 years ago, the scene would be almost unimaginable. U.S. Air Force fighter aircraft on soil, in what was then, a country veiled behind the "Iron Curtain." "Gunfighters" from the Texas Air National Guard's 149th Fighter Wing in San Antonio and their F-16 aircraft deployed to the Czech Republic Sept. 4. For two weeks, the two country's pilots flew with and against one another, but now as friends, not foes.
The Texans deployed as part of on an ongoing effort headed by the National Guard Bureau in building international relationships. The National Guard's State Partnership Program, pairs the 54 states' and territories' Army and Air National Guard units, with various other countries militaries throughout the globe to promote familiarization and mutual exchange of ideas and joint training. The forces in Texas are paired with the Czech Republic.
Additionally, in April 2009 at a formal ceremony in Austin, Texas, entered a second partnership with Chile
"It was excellent training for both sides, I believe," said Lt. Col. John Kane, vice commander of the wing and officer in charge during the deployment. Kane indicated the first-time deployment to the Czech Republic was a great way to continue honing relationships between the two countries and spoke highly of the Czech pilot and aircraft abilities.
For the first week of the exchange, both forces flew various air-to-air engagements, demonstrating one another's aircraft capabilities and pilot skills. The Czech air force employs the JAS 39 Grippen as a multi-role air-to-air, and air-to-ground fighter. Student pilots at Caslav are first introduced to jets, flying the Czech-built, sub-sonic L-159 Alca trainer.
The second week saw a transition from air-to-air engagements to a close-air support role. The 149th contingent brought along Air Force active duty joint terminal air controllers currently stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, to work alongside the Czech forward air controllers. "What we hope to gain is a better appreciation of some language difficulties as well as how they deal with fast movers," said Kane about the anticipated close-air engagements.
The skies near the town of Namiest were buzzing as all three airframes descended to make good on Kane's expectations. During the exercise, the controllers from both countries were met with a barrage of aircraft in a frenzy of activity.
"Sometimes we spoke and understood each other, sometimes we reverted to just using hand signals to explain what had to be done," described Capt. Janice Cavinder, one of the U.S. Air Force JTACs. Cavinder explained the controllers were extremely busy and the Air Force controllers learned a lot about their counterparts. "They were also surprised how fast the F-16 really was," said Cavinder.
Col. Petr Mikulenka, base commander at Chaslav, hosted a distinguished visitor day on the base Sept. 10. Among the distinguished visitors was Brig. Gen Jiri Verner, commander of Czech air forces, who said he was greatly encouraged by the visit and spoke highly of the two-country partnership. Verner and Brig. Gen. John F. Nichols, Texas Air National Guard commander, toured the installation and took a look at the birds of prey program. The Czech air force at Caslav uses falcons and eagles trained locally, to ward off other birds in an effort to humanely keep runways clear.
During both weeks, both countries showcased their respective cultures' culinary skills during Czech and Texas nights, the latter taking place two days before the Texans return. Kind words were exchanged, but more importantly, invisible barriers seemed to thaw as the Czechs and Americans interacted with one another. Aircraft maintainers, pilots, logistics, medical personnel and more exchanged ideas, practices and stories. Smiles and laughter replaced uneasiness and suspicion.
One Texas maintainer explained that, in their conversations, some of the Czech' s admitted they were initially unsure of the visiting Americans. But by the end of the deployment, they felt like they'd made some new friends from Texas.