By Master Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing
/ Published June 19, 2017
NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. -- Memorial Day weekend marks the ‘Official Beginning of Summer,’ with grilled hot dogs and school graduation ceremonies, as Americans pause to pay honor to those who have given their lives in service to their nation. For over 120 members of the 142nd Fighter Wing, known as the Redhawks, Memorial Day took on an added summons as they arrived here to support the Weapons Instructor Course (WIC) from May 29 to June 16.
Over the trajectory of the past year, Redhawk F-15 Eagles have been to the furthest reaches of the United States; first west to Hawaii in August, 2016, and then east to Georgia in February of this year. Yet, not to be outdone domestically, incorporated international trips north to Canada in October, 2016, and most recently this spring, deploying overseas to support missions in the middle east. In all, it has been one of the busiest twelve months in the unit’s 76 year history.
BUILDING ON SUCCESS
“It really shows our resolve and resiliency,” said Capt. Aaron LaMont, who served as the project officer for the WIC assignment. “Its when you go on the road, you see what’s it is like to be world-wide deployable.”
The intense planning for WIC, like all the other assignments away from home station, begins 120 days in advance, with key areas assigned to make sure everything is covered when it’s time to load up and move out.
“We start by mapping out how many people are needed, then assign key POC’s (Points of Contact) within our maintenance department, finance, logistics, communication and other areas, he said. “Once we know what we need to bring then we go over the rules and responsibilities.”
LaMont, like many of the Redhawks here, is serving on his third temporary duty assignment (TDY) this year, while a handful of others are on their fourth. The hard work as been evident as the jets are meeting their flying responsibilities and the airmen are taking on the challenges with fluctuating shift hours and last minute schedules changes.
“Obviously the more flying we do it’s harder on the aircraft and the more toll it puts on maintenance but those guys are awesome, the jets are clean and ready to go,” said LaMont. “When it all comes together, were able to be successful from the plan we built in advance.”
THE NELLIS EXPERIENCE
Soon after arriving, the work tempo, like the temperature quickly shot up. Early in the first week, as many as three missions sets were being flown a day with aircraft often returning back to base as others taxied off the flightline. The intensity played well into the role the Redhawks, provided as the ‘Red Team’ aggressors, taking the fight to the ‘Blue Team.’
“The training is different because our role here [at WIC], is the part of aggressors or non American tactics, but it allows us to see the combat environment from a different approach than back at home,” said LaMont.
Training tactical leaders has a long history here as well. The Unites States Air Force Weapons School was first established in 1949, as veteran flyers of WWII formed the cadre to help instruct the next generation of pilots! Providing that Red Air Support role by the 142nd Fighter Wing is helps to also support the Instructor Pilots in the weapons school.
“Nellis is the hub for tactics and training and has the best air space in the world,” LaMont explained. “For the most part, the weather is great and reliable. Almost every aircraft in the Air Force inventory is involved in the course work and that simulates the combat environment necessary for this training.”
When moving the 142nd Fighter Wing’s F-15 Eagles from Portland’s cooler and damper climate, to the Nevada desert conditions, the aircraft need time to make the transition. On the flightline, the maintenance airmen know the first few days will be busy.
“It takes a couple of days for the jets to get climatized to the environment, settle in and start working more consistently,” explained Master Sgt. Haina Searls, an avionics technician. “The same thing I noticed when we got to the UAE (United Arab Emirates), the first week was hard on avionics, but then the jets really started to cooperate with the dryer weather, performing superbly.”
As important as getting the aircraft functioning at a high rate, it is equally important to get a good mix of the staff for the WIC assignment. Seasoned veterans like Searls feel it is important to bring a good number of Drill Status Guardsmen (DSG) that can spend time building skill sets.
“Our intent is to get 40 percent of our DSG’s on extended temporary situations,” he said. “With our nine avionics members here, five are traditional guardsmen, and they can get more out of these missions when they focus solely on the jets.”
To support the number of trips in the past year, family members pay a price too. Several members missed their kids high school graduation ceremonies during this TDY, others have missed special events like baseball tournaments or birthdays.
“I cannot say enough about my family, they are big supporters of me and our mission,” said Searls. “I thank my wife everyday, as this is my third major TDY in less than a year.”
GREAT SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT
As the tempo of launch and recovery of the Redhawk’s F-15’s kept the two shifts in concert with the flying mission, it is hard not to notice all the other aircraft in the U.S. Air Force inventory moving in the same precision. A rapid succession of F-16 Falcons can be followed by 5th Generation F-22 Raptors, followed by the new kid on the block; the joint force F-35 Lighting II.
The U.S. Air Force Weapons School stated mission is to train “Airmen skilled in the art of integrated battlespace dominance across the land, air, space and cyber domains.” The depth and variety of aircraft helps distinguish the Weapons Instructor Course like none other in the Air Force, allowing the student to integrate training with airframes both new and old.
As he stood from the end of the flightline, Staff Sgt. David Schnek watched a B-52 Stratofortress trek skyward with the same type of wonder the fighter jets demand.
“When I joined the Air Force, that was the first air frame I worked on,” Schnek recalled. “It’s been 13 years since I watch a B-52, and it has been awesome, I don’t want to miss a second of the take off or any of the details when it leaves the air base.”
Working the swing shift, Schnek and his comrades found themselves turning jets in the dark, late at night and often into early morning hours, only to have an early starting time the next day.
“We have a good group of guys, everyone is stepping up, and the shift hours keeps it interesting and helps mixes it up,” he said. “When we deployed to Romania in 2015, our work schedule was often just as varied and demanding.”
The cumulative effect of deployments, temporary duty assignments, schools and daily undertakings with the home station alert mission has built a skilled, trained and prepared group. Even though Schenk is part of The North American Aerospace Defense Command alert team in Portland, the WIC assignment is his third diversion from his normal 24 hours on, 48 hours off continuous schedule over the past two years.
“I really love it and get a great sense of accomplishment from working on the alert mission,” said Schenk. “When you get the opportunity to go and work with other Air Force units, whether it be U.S. or other nations, it’s great because we simultaneously learn from each other.”
The same sentiment is echoed by Major Bradley Young, as he concludes his final days in the WIC program. The long months of training and has prepared him to take his flying to the next level and incorporate the knowledge with his colleagues with the 142nd Fighter Wing.
“The Weapons School has been an amazing experience,” he said. “I am very much looking forward to taking everything I’ve learned and bringing it back to the Redhawks.”