ALPENA - A series of explosions rocked a remote plot of land about 50 miles west of Alpena on Wednesday, near Grayling. They weren't fireworks or demolitions, but low-level delivery tritonal bombs delivered by pilots of the Air National Guard 113th Wing. The target? Combat readiness certification.
About 500 members of the wing's 121st Fighter Squadron and 201st Airlift Squadron arrived at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center on Saturday for 10 days of "air-to-ground" training, and though they had all done their homework, many had yet to test their skills in a live situation. In addtition to test driving about 20 of the fighter squadron's pilots and eight of its F-16 jets, the training exercises also require care personnel, weapons loaders, communications experts, engineers, maintenance people, and other recruits to prove their collective mettle as a well-oiled machine ready for deployment.
This demands more elbow room than the squadron's home base in Washington, D.C., can accommodate, and Alpena's relative proximity to Washington makes it a more cost-effective destination than open areas in Arizona and others out west. Director of Operations Col. Scott Arbogast said the CRTC's open space and military base facilities make it uniquely qualified to host complex training exercises from start to finish rather than in piecemeal, compromised stages.
News Photo by Andrew Westrope
Air National Guard Lt. Joel Deconcini of D.C.’s 113th Wing performs a preflight inspection on one of eight F-16s grounded at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center on Tuesday. About 500 members of the wing’s 121st Fighter Squadron will practice bomb-dropping training exercises at the base through Friday before heading back to the capitol next week.
"For us, the biggest draw is that we can drop live munitions. On the east coast, we're right at Andrews (Air Force Base), and we can't store live munitions, we can't drop live munitions ... We have certain live requirements for training that we're required to do every year, and this allows us to do it," he said. "Plus all the other benefits of Alpena. It's nice to get everyone here. There's not a lot of distractions, not like Las Vegas or something like that, and you can kind of put everyone on the base and they can kind of reconnect and rebond. Pilots can talk with crew chiefs, or you meet people that do mission support, or you get to see people that you normally don't interact with day to day."
Public Affairs Officer Maj. Elizabeth Kreft said a jet needs one pilot but about 10 maintenance people to serve its purpose, and the exercise would give them each a turn to apply their expertise. She said the point of the exercise is to treat it like a combat mission, and for the Air National Guard, Alpena is one of the country's premiere locations for this.
"Any time you have to pick up all of the airplanes and equipment and go to a different location, you're simulating essentially going and deploying," she said. "Putting the bombs on target is kind of the end of the process, but it actually starts at home when we have to pack up, we have to do the logistics and planning, we have to pick up the entire body of people and move them here, so we're actually practicing the entire thing ... Not only training the pilots, but then making sure your communications books can work with the operators to make sure they have their computers to work with, and the right vaults to work out of, and all that kind of stuff."
Kreft estimated about half the visiting squadron members had never been to the CRTC before and would have an invaluable experience at the base.
"Some of the younger pilots here haven't had a chance to train, haven't seen any of that stuff in combat. They need to understand and learn when to be using the gun, when to use the bombs," she said. "Ideally, your first time ever dropping a bomb won't be in Afghanistan."
The CRTC is one of the first steps between academic simulation and real-world experience for some; for others, it is one of the last. Seasoned pilot Lt. Joel Deconcini had had similar training in flight school before climbing the ranks at his home unit in D.C., but he took his first training opportunity to drop live bombs on Wednesday. He flew twice, first to deliver a "B-50" inert bomb filled with cement, and again to drop "Mark 82" live bombs, and also filled the role of a SOF ("Supervisor of Flying") for other pilots, a second pair of eyes on the ground in case of emergency.
The projectiles hit the earth traveling close to the speed of sound in an area not extremely far removed from civilian property, so safety means clear satellite photos of the target area, a specific plan of attack accounting for precise wind speed and altitude measurements, millions of dollars in tracking instruments and other technology, and a well-trained pilot's own expertise and coordination. Deconcini said it was invaluable practice with life-and-death stakes in a $20 million-plus aircraft.
"We go through step by step everything we're going to do ... like checking 30 degrees to the right, then pulling up to 3,200 feet, then rolling in by over-banking 135 degrees and pointing at the target, pulling the throttle back; and you can talk about that, but you really don't know how good you are at executing that until you do it," he said.
Deconcini and other pilots and members of the 113th wing will return to Washington on Tuesday to resume their duties on airspace control alert and start preparation for a major mission-readiness inspection in June 2013. Kreft said other generations from other units will follow, as CRTC will train about 10,000 airmen over the course of the next three months.
"They have a lot of people rolling through here for training, and we're just one part of it," she said. "But we're probably one of the cooler parts of it."
Andrew Westrope can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693.