MADISON, Wis. --
About 150 Airmen from the Madison-based 115th Fighter Wing returned to the white snow of Wisconsin from the white sands of Key West, Fla., following a joint training exercise with the U.S. Marine Corps Jan. 7-21.
The two-week exercise, based out of Naval Air Station Key West, pit the fighter wing's F-16 Fighting Falcons against Marine F-18 Hornets in simulated combat.
Airmen in nearly every aspect of flying, aircraft operations and aircraft maintenance made the trip to take advantage of the near-optimal training conditions - including the time, airspace and weather to support increased training sorties.
"Right now we can get so much more flying and training in than we can do at home station," said Lt. Col. Gary Pelletier, deputy commander of the 115th Maintenance Group. "Everyone's been performing great."
Missing only a few sorties due to weather, 115th Maintenance and other fighter wing support personnel helped pilots log nearly 120 sorties and more than 175 flying hours.
"Key West provides a premier location for accomplishing our defensive counter - air scenarios, due to its combination of superior airspace, ramp space for adversaries, briefing and debriefing capabilities and the integration it provides for our GCI controllers and our range training officers for real time kill removal and training through scenario management," said Col. Erik Peterson, 115th Operations Group commander.
The airspace surrounding Key West provided Madison's fighter pilots the opportunity to train and perform in conditions not available in Wisconsin. For instance, the designated airspace for this exercise is about four times larger than the training airspace in Wisconsin. Also, the elevation cap is boosted significantly from 28,000 to 50,000 feet. These conditions allow for supersonic speeds.
"[Key West] provides an excellent opportunity for flying against the F-16 Fighting Falcon in some of the best air space the country has to offer," said Marine Capt. Michael Huck, F-18 pilot with the Marine Fighter Attack (VFMA) 314 based out of Miramar, Calif.
"The F-16 is a very capable aircraft ... very capable weapons system," Huck said. "So we look to use our tactics and find gaps in those strengths so we can get out there and have a good engagement."
Peterson said he appreciates the value of the exercise and training with the Marines as well.
"The VMFA 314, as an extremely professional organization, provided outstanding adversary support," Peterson said. "It went very, very smooth overall."
For the maintainers specifically, the pace of the exercise provided some very valuable experience across the spectrum of Airmen - from the youngest to the more veteran force. The flying schedule was "6-turn-6," meaning the Airmen launched six of the seven F-16s on station and had only a couple hours to recover, reconfigure and fix any issues before the next six took off.
"Many of our traditional Guard members have not had an opportunity to work day-after-day ... experiencing what actual flying and maintenance operations are really like over more than just one drill weekend," said Capt. Christy Kasten, deputy commander of the 115th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.
"The training our traditional Airmen receive on deployments like Key West is highly valuable to them, increasing the knowledge of their job specifically as well as the other areas that support maintenance," she said.
The exercise also enhanced the maintainers' relationship with the pilots and operations personnel - a value that will be extremely beneficial to the fighter wing in the future.
"They were extremely flexible in meeting our flying windows and our aircraft configuration requirements," Peterson said. "They provided the operations group with a solid basis going into the months ahead in preparation for our Operational Readiness Inspection.
Roughly 50 aircrew and support Airmen from the Milwaukee-based 128th Air Refueling Wing, along with three KC-135 Stratotankers, also gained valuable training and supported the exercise by providing in-flight refueling to both the F-16's and F-18's throughout the two-week training.
"They can stay up here, do two flights instead of one, train with multiple units and also practice their in-flight refueling skills as well," said Master Sgt. Will Mattert, in-flight refueler for 128th ARW.
Deploying and sustaining flying operations, involving nearly 150 Airmen and seven fighter jets, to any location is no easy task. In addition to pilots and maintainers, medics, security forces, force support personnel, life support and many other support personnel were on hand to achieve training and contribute to the overall exercise.
"Each and every Airman on this deployment can be proud to know they directly contributed to the success of this exercise," Kasten said.
Additional photos available here.