Air Force, Navy combine for air combat skills training
By Tech. Sgt. Don Nelson, 115th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published April 29, 2009
NAVAL AIR STATION KEY WEST, Fla. -- Setting aside their disagreements on which state has better cheese, pilots from the Air National Guard's 115th Fighter Wing in Madison, Wis. honed their air-to-air combat training skills along side their naval counterparts from the Strike Fighter Squadron 2 (VFA-2), Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif. during a two-week training mission at NAS Key West, Fla.
The Wisconsin ANG unit's 176th Fighter Squadron put their F-16C Fighting Falcons to the test against FA-18F Super Hornets from the active duty Navy squadron. The training missions featured air-to-air and air-to-ground offensive and defensive combat tactics designed to simulate real-world operations.
For nearly a week, More than 140 active duty naval airmen, pilots and support personnel shared a large hangar with 120 guardsmen from the 115th FW to support eight missions a day.
"This is the culmination of our air-to-air training," said Lt. Col. Erik Peterson, 176th FS commander. "We typically only do this exercise once every year and a half and this allows us to simulate probably the most challenging scenarios we can."
Most of the combat flying skills training is done back at the home station, however, the Key West air space is a unique environment that offers the ability to do things they would not normally be able to do at home.
"Over the water here, we can go super sonic speeds at all altitudes up to 50,000 feet and that is typically hard to do with certain air space limitations over land," said Lt. Col. Peterson.
The available air space for military training in and around Key West is more than 134,000 square miles that essentially is free of commercial air traffic.
"Warfare today often relies upon being able to operate in a joint and coalition environment, so every event that can reinforce those skills makes us an even better defensive force," said Capt. Steve Holmes, NAS Key West commander. "Collectively, that is what makes NAS Key West the premier air-to-air training base in the Navy."
The daily missions that pitted the Air Guard and Naval aircraft had each assumed a 'red' adversary or 'blue' defensive role depending on the scenario given. Each pilot flew at least one mission as either of these roles.
"The F-16C provides simulation for us that, in some aspects, we can't do with the FA-18F itself," said Lt. Richard Lang, VFA-2 detachment officer-in-charge. "We get a tremendous amount of experience and exposure by seeing a different type of aircraft and just fighting something different than you do on a normal everyday basis."
Watching the action from a dark room with large screens that would make video game enthusiasts jealous are pilots from both services. Inside the tactical air control facility, real-time interaction, as transmitted from equipment on the aircraft, is viewed, recorded and evaluated which translates into a scorecard of how each unit performed their scenario.
In addition to the air-to-air combat training, the aircraft maintenance crews and administrative support people worked the exercise as if they were in a real-world deployed environment.
As part of the exposure to a multi-service operation, the aircraft maintainers participated in a swap program that had Air Guard crew chiefs help launch the FA-18s and Navy plane captains do the same with the F-16Cs.
"If we see something that they are doing that is a great idea we can bring it into our training and make us a better team," said Master Chief Petty Officer John Cloyes, VFA-2 maintenance master chief.
The hangar facility where the units are housed during the exercises allows for all of the operations, maintenance and support elements to be co-located. This allows for maximum collaboration between amongst all participants both Lt. Col Peterson and Lt. Lang said.
Not only is everyone working in close proximity of everyone else, they are all housed near each other as well. Off-duty time often requires carefully choreographed car pools for those who want to go downtown.
"We are all within a once block area of each other and in the evening you see folks out walking around that you would not normally see if you were at home," said Maj. Matt Eakins, 115th FW maintenance operations commander. "Here we get the camaraderie of having to share a ride everywhere you go."
Flying and maintaining the aircraft are essentially only two-thirds of the complete mission said Sen. Master Sgt. Steve Veers, 115th FW first sergeant. Lodging, food, transportation, military pay and communication are just a few of the essential services that support personnel provide he said.
"We want to take care of all of the little problems so they can focus on fixing and flying the jets," said Chief Petty Officer Mike Grange, VFA-2 administrative chief. "It is our job to make sure that everything goes smooth."