Monthly Archives: August 2017

Don’t Fear the Reaper: A Rare Look inside Remotely Piloted Aircraft Operations at Holloman Air Force Base

We Went Inside USAF MQ-9 Reaper Training and Operations at Holloman AFB.

We never heard it. Out of the corner of my eye in a cloudless, bright blue New Mexico desert sky I saw the glint of a reflection over our bus. I glanced outside again. Nothing. No sound. Nothing in the sky. Then the glint flashed again, and this time I spotted it. But it was too late. The Reaper was already upon us.

This was the first time I had seen a General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper combat aircraft in flight. The experience stands in stark contrast to the thunder of fast jets or the whine of turboprops. In fact, the quiet whirring of the little 900 horsepower Honeywell turboprop seemed oddly toy-like. It seemed that way, if it wasn’t powering one of the most effective combat aircraft in the U.S. arsenal.

Holloman AFB in New Mexico is home to the U.S. Air Force 49th Wing Remotely Piloted Aircraft squadrons. The units include the 6th, 9th and unique 29th Attack Squadrons of the 49th Wing. This is the primary school for teaching new pilots to fly the MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft. The school provides initial qualification training for the two person aircrews that fly the Reaper. In fact the 49th Wing’s 29th Attack Squadron (ATKS) is reported to be the only complete training unit for MQ-9 Reaper aircrews in the U.S. Air Force. This distinction puts their capabilities in high demand.

Out of the clear, blue New Mexico sky an MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft flies over us at Holloman AFB.

Remotely piloted aircraft have been the subject of misconceptions that are largely the result of fiction about “drones” or equipment that somehow spins out of human control. It is almost no more possible with a remotely piloted aircraft like the Reaper than it is with an onboard manned aircraft using a modern fly-by-wire flight control system.

There have been rare instances of adversaries jamming or supposedly taking control of remotely piloted aircraft, as with a December 2011 incident when the Iranian military managed to capture a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel remotely piloted aircraft. But this incident is more of an anomaly than the risk of hijacks using a manned aircraft, as with the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States.

In fact, because security for the signal transmission that links the remotely piloted aircraft directly to its flight crew is codified and constantly improving, it is more likely that a onboard-manned aircraft can be hijacked than a remotely piloted aircraft. Remotely piloted aircraft can also be destroyed without risking the loss of flight crew, as was the case with an incident in September of 2009 in Afghanistan when U.S. combat aircraft destroyed a remotely piloted aircraft that suffered a rare control malfunction.

Last week TheAviationist.com gladly accepted a rare media invitation to see the RPA training operations at Holloman AFB in New Mexico. The school operates several versions of the General Atomics MQ-9 Predator aircraft primarily for training new Predator aircrews.

A distant shot of Reapers at Holloman AFB being used in training missions over New Mexico.

During our tour of the facility, aircrews wore opaque adhesive tape over their name badges for operational security. The missions these aircrews are training for are real world. One instructor related a mission when a new Predator pilot, after extensive training, was tasked with employing live weapons against actual operational targets in a conflict zone only 37 minutes after receiving their full qualification. That level of operational readiness is unprecedented in nearly all current tactical aviation.

His name obscured by tape for operational security, a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper pilot describes the video feed from live missions being flown over Holloman AFB.

Predator operators and aircraft live behind additional layers of security within security in the remote New Mexico desert at Holloman. Because the nature of remotely operated combat aircraft reduces deployment time to near zero being in one of the control vans at Holloman was tantamount to standing on an operational forward airstrip in a conflict zone.

A sensor ball mounted under the nose of an MQ-9. This contains various spectrum sensors and cameras and provides the flight crew with their view of the flight operations.

As we received our briefings the cockpit feed from optical sensors and flight control instruments on live aircraft in flight appeared on monitors. It looked like flying any light aircraft, whether it is a Cessna general aviation aircraft or a small, stealthy combat aircraft like the MQ-9 Predator. As we watched an MQ-9 practice landing approaches we could see the response to the pilot’s flight control inputs. These really are just another form of highly capable light combat aircraft.

A rare look into the “cockpit” of the MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted combat aircraft.

In March of 2017 the website Military.com reported that USAF Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson told a media roundtable at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida that, “The U.S. Air Force now has more jobs for MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers than any other type of pilot position.”

With the expansion of remotely piloted aircraft operations and the demand for aircrews to fly them it is reasonable to expect that the 49th Wing at Holloman will continue to be a very busy place.

Operational security around reaper control vans is elevated since the training and missions are a critical asset.

 

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The Crazy Story Of The Very First A-10 Pilot To Land A Badly-Damaged Warthog With No Canopy And With The Gear Up

Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.

The A-10 is famous for being exceptionally tough and able to survive direct hits from armor-piercing and high-explosive projectiles. A recent episode proves the Warthog’s durability combined with pilot training, can be extremely useful, when it deals with managing an unusual emergency.

On Jul. 20, Capt. Brett DeVries, who was flying his A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft over the forests of Alpena County, in northeast Michigan, was able to land on the runway at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center with his aircraft whose canopy had blown off the aircraft 25 minutes before, whose main radio had stopped working, along with the first back-up, and with the landing gear that would not come down.

According to the U.S. Air Force, the 107th Fighter Squadron pilot from Selfridge Air National Guard Base made something that was never achieved before in the roughly 40-year history of the A-10: indeed, DeVries was the first pilot to land with no canopy and with the landing gear up.

“In that moment, your training kicks in. The training – that’s what saves you and your wingman,” DeVries said in an official release that provides all the details you can find in this story.

He was part of a four-ship on a routine training sortie from Selfridge to the Grayling Air Gunnery Range: a pretty standard mission for DeVries and his peers in the 107th, known as the “Red Devils,” that included a 30-minute transit to Grayling, to drop dummy bombs and make several strafing passes with the 30mm GAU-8 Avenger Gatling-style gun. A type of sortie DeVries has flown some 300 times!

After performing six bomb passes over the gunnery range to drop their ordinance, each A-10 took a turn firing the 30mm gun. However, on his second pass, DeVries’ gun malfunctioned. Simultaneously, the canopy of his aircraft blew off. With the canopy off and flying at about 325 knots, the wind caught in his helmet and slammed DeVries’ head back into the seat.

“It was like someone sucker punched me,” he said. “I was just dazed for a moment.”

At the time, he was flying at about 150 feet. DeVries instinctively pulled back on his stick to gain altitude and climbed to 2,000 feet, out of the normal path for range traffic, to put some space between his aircraft and the ground.

Flying behind DeVries was Major Shannon Vickers, another 107th pilot.

He saw a “donut of gas” from the Avenger gun around Devries’ aircraft, but didn’t realize the canopy had blown off because he was focused on the ground targets in the range. Still, he thought that something was wrong when the A-10 ahead of him had suddenly climbed.

Inside his cockpit, DeVries operated on instinct: he first lowered the seat in the cockpit to try to escape the winds that were buffeting his head back and forth and causing his maps and checklists to be blowing all around.

Another issue the pilot had to assess was the integrity of the ejection seat: had the blown canopy compromised it?

Vickers flew under him, performing a visual inspection of the damaged aircraft.

In addition to having been an A-10 pilot for the past 10 years, Vickers brought a little extra knowledge to the table. The Michigan native started his military career as an enlisted weapons specialist, working on A-10s at the 110th Attack Wing in Battle Creek.

Quickly, the two Red Devils determined that the best plan would be to fly over to Alpena, just a few minutes away by air, and attempt a landing there. While flying there, the Alpena control tower called down to Selfridge, some 250 miles to the south, in metropolitan Detroit. Soon, several A-10 maintenance specialists were on a speaker phone, chiming in with their ideas and recommendations, which Alpena then relayed to Vickers and DeVries, who was now down to using his third-best radio system.

Finally, with Vickers chasing him, the pilot of the damaged Warthog tried to lower his landing gear: the gear started to come down, but, as they feared, the nose gear was hung up from the gun damage.

Quickly, Vickers radioed to DeVries: “Gear up!”

Fortunately, the gear completely retracted to the up position.

With no other option remaining, with gear up and the canopy off DeVries lined the aircraft up for a landing.

“As he made final approach, I felt confident he was making the right decision,” Vickers said. “We had talked through every possibility and now he was going to land it.”

Shallow approach. Not too fast. Minimal flare.

On the A-10, the two main landing gear wheels are exposed, even when in the up position. It is part of the combat resiliency of the aircraft. And so, Capt. Brett DeVries landing his ‘Hog, right in the middle of the runway in a near textbook landing – caught on video by another pilot who was on the ground at Alpena.

“I flew him down, calling out his altitude,” Vickers said. “He came in flat, I mean it was a very smooth landing.”

After flying alongside DeVries during the landing, Vickers circled the field and saw his fellow Red Devil exit the aircraft on his own and run to the fire truck; then he was instructed to return to Selfridge.

“There is a reason why we train as a two-ship or greater,” said Col. Shawn Holtz, Commander of the 127th Operations Group and an A-10 pilot. “We rely on each other and need to have mutual support within the flight. Maj. Vickers was the definition of what a Wingman should be in this flight. He stuck with Capt. Devries and did everything in his power to see this through to a safe landing. Both of these pilots demonstrated not only superior flying skills, but represent the type of teamwork and professionalism that should be the goal of every Attack Pilot.”

In all, the flight lasted about 25 minutes from the time the canopy blew off until landing. An investigation is underway into the cause of the original malf The A-10 is still at Alpena where it is being repaired and will return to the flying inventory at Selfridge

“Again, I want to stress the training,” DeVries said. “Sometimes, perhaps we think, ‘Why do we have to do this training again and again?’ Well, in this case, the training took over and it is what made the difference.”

Slocum said the two men will be submitted for appropriate recognition for their superior Airmanship during the July 20 flight. DeVries also received an email congratulating him from Gen. David L. Goldfein, the Air Force Chief of Staff.

Capt. Brett DeVries (right) and his wingman Maj. Shannon Vickers, both A-10 Thunderbolt II pilots of the 107th Fighter Squadron from Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Mich. Vickers helped DeVries safely make an emergency landing July 20 at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center after the A-10 DeVries was flying experienced a malfunction. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Terry Atwell)

 

It’s Not a Fly-Off Competition: U.S. Air Force Tests Process and Planes at Light Attack Demo

New Process Showcased for Sourcing Includes Proposed Light Attack Aircraft.

The U.S. Air Force invited reporters to Holloman AFB in New Mexico for briefings about its new Light Attack Experiment last week. The key message from top Air Force and industry officials was not about aircraft selection, but about new evaluation methods for some proposed Air Force programs.

Adding emphasis to the significance of the program Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff General David L. Goldfein were in attendance at Holloman AFB for the event.

The four aircraft included in the Light Attack Experiment are the proven Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, the Textron Aviation AT-6 turboprop, Textron’s new Scorpion light twin-engine jet and the interesting crop-duster turned combat plane, the Air Tractor/L3 Platform Integration AT-802L Longsword. Examples of each of the aircraft were present at the event for journalists, industry insiders and members of participating nations’ air forces to examine.

But the emphasis on this demonstration was process, not planes.

As a possible outcome of the new evaluation and selection process acquisition programs could become more agile, adaptable and bring some future-facing needs to the battlefield faster and at lower cost. This may include a new light attack aircraft for the U.S. Air Force.

Part of the Air Force’s dual focus on process and planes is the open source acquisition methodology used during the Light Attack Experiment. The aircraft in the evaluation test case already exist, they are relatively “off the shelf”. Three of the four aircraft have already been employed in the light attack/counterinsurgency role, with only one, the Textron AirLand Scorpion, being a new developmental aircraft.

The Light Attack Experiment Demo patch.

This new acquisition process will reduce costs and accelerate suitable programs from the evaluation to operational stage more quickly. The process compliments large-scale full-development program successes like the Joint Strike Fighter program that lead to the Air Force’s new F-35A Lightning II while filling a different, complimentary need.

U.S. Air Force Commander of Air Combat Command, General James “Mike” Holmes made a case for the Light Attack concept to reporters, “So you can imagine a world where you’re able to base some of these airplanes closer to the [forward] area, they can stay on station for a pretty good time, with a turboprop engine, which gives them a lot of time to stay out there. And then ultimately, it comes down again, to that really low cost.”

The Commander of ACC went on to note additional advantages in creating new combat pilots more efficiently, “My take is part of the benefit of this airplane is I can season and produce fighter pilots fast. I can fly a lot of hours on it pretty cheaply, and so I can make an experienced fighter pilot, which is what I’m short, I can make one fast.” When commenting on any potential progression of light tactical turboprop combat pilots to the fast jet community General Holmes told us, “I’ll season them in this airplane and then I’ll bring them back and put them into a short course, into a fourth or fifth gen fighter.”

Air Force Chief of Staff General David L. Goldfein and Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson (all photos Author/The Aviationist)

Finally, in remarks to reporters, General Holmes hinted at an interesting prospect that harkens to the historical roots of Air Force Special Operations going back to the Vietnam era Air Commandos and the use of light combat aircraft in the counterinsurgency (COIN) role when he added, “There is also the possibility that AFSOC may come forward and say they want to employ the airplane.”

While General Holmes was articulate about the possible advantages of the Light Attack concept he was also measured about its potential promise, “I can use them in combat, I think, we’ll find out. When they’re in the United States I can use them to train tactical air control parties at a much lower cost per flying hour and I can use them to support my maneuver unit training with the Army, at a much lower cost per flying hour and still work through all the CAS procedures. It’s a capability, we think, we’re going to do these experiments and see, that would let us continue to do another multi-year approach to fighting violent extremist organizations at a cheaper cost in a fiscal environment where every dollar counts.”

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General David L. Golden made a fitting entrance to the light attack demo at the controls of one of the test aircraft.

Just as programs like Joint Strike Fighter and Light Attack are vastly different, it makes sense that the development, evaluation and acquisition processes are different also. And because this new pipeline to highly adaptive operational capability places a strong enterprise motive on private industry as opposed to government, it can provide greatly reduced developmental cost to taxpayers.

Light attack was a good place to start with this new, open source evaluation process. The post 9/11 battlefield has changed significantly during the Global War on Terror. It includes a wide spectrum of conflict models for air combat. These include large scale air operations against nation states with conventional air forces flying against heavily defended ground targets in a non-permissive environment, like Desert Storm. At the other end of the spectrum it includes anti-insurgent air operations in a smaller, more permissive battlespace that does not require stealth, long range aircraft or heavy weapons, like some operations in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Afghan Air Force is already employing the Embraer/Sierra Nevada Corporation A-29 Super Tucano, one of the aircraft in the Light Attack Experiment, operationally. And this multi-nation user set adds interoperability to the argument for light attack also.

One of the most interesting participants in the Light Attack Demo is the AT-802L Longsword from L3 Platform Integration and Air Tractor.

U.S. Air Force subject matter expert on light attack and counterinsurgency Col. Mike Pietrucha spoke to TheAviationist.com specifically about the Light Attack Experiment and the promise it may offer the Air Force:

“The argument is to go for a less expensive aircraft that is more optimized for the kind of warfighting we’ve been doing so that you can spread the burden out, rather than make everything a one size fits all airplane. Bottom line of that right now, is we have more missions than we have Air Force. When you look at light attack the amount of fuel it takes to keep a turboprop in the air for an hour is the amount of fuel it takes to taxi the Strike Eagle down the runway for six to nine minutes. Just the logistics start to look like an awfully attractive argument.”

The rear cockpit, systems operator station in the AT-802L Longsword features (A.) a unique alpha-control keyboard that is worn on the controller’s arm to actuate some weapons/guidance/designation and communications functions. (B.) A side stick controller moves sensors for target imaging. (C.) The rear cockpit features full flight controls. (D.) There is a large multi-function display from sensors.

If successful, acquisition processes like the one demonstrated during the Light Attack Experiment broaden the Air Force’s spectrum of ways it can acquire new equipment and adapt to a rapidly changing battlespace more quickly as the nature of conflict evolves. This process also improves economic efficiencies while addressing the current pilot shortage by providing new training opportunities. By nearly every measure, the new acquisition methodology and the Light Attack Experiment concept represent strong, adaptable synergies for modern air power in the rapidly changing battlespace.

The Embraer A-29 Super Tucano and the AT-802L Longsword on display at the Light Attack Demo.

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An F/A-18E From USS Nimitz Has Crashed In Bahrain. It’s The 11th Major Incident Involving A Hornet In The Last 14 Months.

Yet another “Rhino” has crashed. It’s the second Super Hornet this year, the fourth one since May 2016.

As you probably already know, an F/A-18E of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 146  assigned to the USS Nimitz (CVN 68) departed the runway and the pilot ejected during an emergency landing at Bahrain International Airport on Aug. 12, 2017.

According to the statement released by the U.S. Navy, the F/A-18E experienced an engine malfunction during a mission launched from USS Nimitz and attempted to divert to Sheik Isa Air Base, Bahrain. Unable to make it to Isa, the pilot was forced to make an emergency landing at Bahrain International Airport. Due to the malfunction, the aircraft could not be stopped on the runway and the pilot ejected from the aircraft as it departed the runway.

The pilot is uninjured and the mishap is under investigation.

This is all we know about this incident. However, it’s worth of note that the one in Bahrain is the 11th major incident involving an F/A-18 of any variant since May 2016 (the figure includes two international incidents: a Swiss Air Force Hornet lost on Aug. 29, 2016 and the Canadian CF-188 lost on Nov. 28, 2016).

Dealing with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fleet, four aircraft were lost (fortunately resulting in 0 fatalities) including the one lost last week: two VFA-211 F/A-18F jets from NAS Oceana collided and crashed 25 miles E of the Oregon Inlet, Nags Head, NC on May 26, 2016; earlier this year, on Apr. 21, 2017, a VFA-137 F/A-18E crashed during a landing attempt on USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in the Celebes sea, between Indonesia and the Philippines.

Legacy Hornets are crashing at an even more alarming rate: two U.S. Marine Corps F-18 Hornets from MCAS Miramar crashed on Nov. 9, 2016 near San Diego. Another F/A-18C crashed near USMC Air Ground Combat Cente, Twentynine Palms, on Oct. 25, 2016. A U.S. Navy F/A-18C belonging to the Strike Fighter Wing Pacific, Detachment Fallon, crashed on Aug. 2, 2016, 10NM to the south of NAS Fallon. On Jul. 27, 2016 a USMC F/A-18 belonging to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing crashed during a night strafing run on a weapons range near Twentynine Palms (killing the pilot). On Jun. 2 a Blue Angels Hornet crashed after taking off from Smyrna/Rutherford County Airport (KMQY), Smyrna, Tennessee: the only pilot on board was killed in the incident.

Aircraft may crash for a variety of reasons, not always technical ones. Still, the rate of Hornet crashes in the last years seems to be unusual and, as such, concerning.

According to a report published in September 2016 by Stars and Stripes, since 2012, the number of major Navy and Marine Hornet and Super Hornet accidents have increased by 44 percent as a consequence of sequestration and subsequent cuts in flight hours for training at home.

Moreover, F/A-18 Hornets of all variants have shown a steady yearly increases of what the Navy calls “physiological episodes” due to oxygen deprivation and cabin decompression since May 1, 2010, and the U.S. Navy has linked the deaths of four Hornet pilots that occurred over a span of 10 years to “physiological episodes” (PE). Such deadly incidents are not all the direct result an oxygen system failure but are linked by the fact that pilots experienced various symptoms that fall within the scope of a PE: dizziness, vertigo, oxygen shortage, blackouts, etc.

Older versions of the plane, the A through D models, have problems with cabin pressure whereas the newer Super Hornet and Growler issues “would appear to point to the onboard oxygen generating” system to which the Navy’ has already made changes.

Although investigators were able to offer several steps to mitigate the risk of physiological episodes, they were not able to identify the root cause of a problem yet.

Top image credit: Twitter via USNI

The Last Of The Dogfighters: The Jedi Warriors of the 54th Fighter Group

Amid Pilot Shortages, F-16 Pilots Train for Real-World Combat at Holloman AFB.

It’s hot as hell out here.

Most of the other reporters have given up. They’re back in the air-conditioned squadron room. Between screaming jet noise, blaring sun, hotplate pavement and a long day that started early this morning with briefings and a catered media tour in shaded hangers it’s gotten real now. And real means hot, loud and uncomfortable.

The U.S. Air Force invited TheAviationist.com to Holloman AFB ten miles outside Alamogordo, New Mexico to showcase the Light Attack Demo and, more importantly, the new evaluation process that goes with it.

But Holloman AFB is a long way from anywhere in the middle of nowhere so our Air Force media staff crams as many story opportunities for visiting journalists into the day as possible. This is the last story of our day, F-16 operations at Holloman AFB. As it turns out, it’s the best story.

Holloman AFB is home to the 54th Fighter Group, the Jedi academy for the best F-16 combat pilots on earth. And while certain Israeli F-16 units may argue that superlative, the live-fire, gun smoke combat experience of the fighter pilots who teach here hangs over the base like the bright white dust blown in from the White Sands Missile Range just to the south. This is where the meat-eaters train for today’s air war.

From the moment you walk into the Group building things feel serious. Staff is moving from office to office quickly. There is a lot of foot traffic. Flight-suited pilots keep right in well-traveled hallways coming from de-brief or going to briefings. The floor of this building rumbles with the operational tempo. Missions are coming in, others being planned to go out.

The tearing sound of two F-16’s leaping into the air on full afterburner vibrates the doors on the building. Since Holloman is miles away from the nearest town, Alamogordo, there aren’t any worries about noise abatement here. Pilots take-off on training sorties the way they would for combat. And the desert rattles under angry jet thunder.

An F-16 pilots taxis back from a training mission outside Holloman AFB over the White Sands Missile Range. (All photos: TheAviationist.com)

It’s unlikely the people who live in Alamogordo would complain about jet noise anyway. The sleepy desert town hangs by its economic fingernails to the outskirts of the base. No base, no Alamogordo. Menus in the local breakfast dives have photos of F-22s on them, not pancakes. The main drag is a succession of fast food places, pawn shops and motels that rely on military revenue for survival. If the base can grow its cadre of enlisted personnel, instructors and student pilots, the town can grow too.

The Air Force faces a problem though, a shortage of fighter pilots and instructors. An Air Force Lt. Col. whose call sign is “Burn Clapper” has been at Holloman since November of 2014 and in command of the 54th Fighter Group since May. During our briefing he tells us, “I’m supposed to have 24 instructor pilots in my squadron, and I have 13 now.”

When I ask Burn Clapper about the reasons for the fighter pilot shortage he tells me, “A few years back, there was a time when we had as many fighter pilots as we needed. We only produced guys coming in for as many guys who were leaving – at the rate that they were leaving then. We only made fighter pilots for who was leaving then, maybe about 400 a year – that’s a guess.”

“Our pilots graduate now with a 10-year commitment. They have been back and forth to combat over the last five years. The economy is good now. Now they have options.”

But the demand for fighter pilots has increased significantly, and the Air Force is responding. Burn Clapper tells us, “The next step is to stand up the 8th fighter squadron. It may become a super squadron, with 40 jets instead of 24 jets PAA (Primary Assigned Aircraft) under one commander. The advantage of a super squadron is you can pool resources to make it easier. We can all use the same scheduler, we can use the same admin side…”

The pilots and instructors they do have here at Holloman are incredibly busy. “The day to day routine for our fighter pilots starts late Friday, Saturday and Sunday to prep for flying on Monday. They fly Monday, they debrief Monday,” Burn Clapper tells us. “They then brief or prep for [flying on] Tuesday, they never get any time off to do their office job. They are busy flying.”

USAF Brigadier General Brook J. Leonard, Commander of the 56th Fighter Wing (parent unit to the 54th Fighter Group), is sitting with me on the hot bus ride out to the even hotter flight line. If Brig. Gen. Leonard showed up to a casting call for a movie about fighter pilots they wouldn’t pick him because he looks too much like a fighter pilot. Tall as a monument, chiseled features, he doesn’t wear sunglasses in the blaring glare of the White Sands desert. You get a sense Brig. Gen. Leonard could stare down the sun. I wager the top of his crew cut was leveled using an attitude indicator from an F-16.

Our bus yields to a trio of F-16’s taxiing fast on their way back from a training sortie to their aircraft shelters. Airmen check the tires of our bus for “FOD”, debris that could come off and be sucked into a jet engine. They give us one quick look-over for security, the fourth time today we’ve been surreptitiously screened for security. This isn’t a weekend airshow. This is the real world.

“What is the orange Sidewinder on the rail of that F-16?” I ask Brig. Gen. Leonard as an F-16 taxis quickly in front of us.

“We use those for OPFOR identification – red air. It’s so they can tell the good guys from the bad in a close-in engagement.” The General tells me.

I ponder the General’s answer for a minute; F-16’s dogfighting over the desert at nearly a thousand miles per hour are fighting so close to each other they can identify friend from foe by a single red missile on a rail under one of their wings.

“Are they fighting that close together Sir?” I ask the General. He shoots me a look, “Well… yeah.”

The tempo of flight operations at Holloman AFB is relentless, with F-16 sorties going out to the ranges and returning constantly.

The pilots in the F-16 cockpits taxing back in from a training mission aren’t waving. They look haggard. Sweaty, unsmiling, oxygen mask unclipped and dangling from one side of their helmet. Their eyes are clamped down in an exhausted squint. Air combat is physically exhausting and mentally draining. The pilots are crushed under their own accumulating body weight as they cross swords at high G’s. They piss their pants in “piddle packs” and get increasingly dehydrated with little time to drink during training engagements. The paint around some of the F-16s M61A1 Vulcan 6-barreled 20mm cannon is blackened with soot from gunfighting. Mid-air collision while training is a constant threat. This is about as far from the creased uniforms and synchronized airshow dance moves of the Thunderbirds as you can get. This is rehearsal for the real world of air combat.

While the rest of the air force is still developing BVR (Beyond Visual Range) doctrine for F-35s over the test ranges north of here Brig. Gen. Leonard’s men are likely the last of the great dogfighters. They aren’t training for a Beyond Visual Range engagement, they are honing the mentally demanding and physically grueling skills needed for a knife fight in a phone booth at Mach 1.

This is the air war we have fought – and won – a couple of times with the Syrians, years ago with the Iraqis, and may fight again with the North Koreans. This is not training for some conceptual war being argued in white papers, this is readiness for air combat today. Holloman’s F-16 instructors put the razor edge on the pointy end of our air warfare spear.

Out on the flightline our media bus stops. The press liaison ushers what reporters remain into an aircraft shelter with an F-16. Brig. Gen. Leonard briefs us on the mission going on around us.

USAF Brigadier General Brook J. Leonard commands the entire 56th Fighter Wing, to which Holloman’s 54th Fighter Group is attached.

He introduces a man dressed in a crisp blacked-out flight suit wearing matte black Oakley sunglasses and a nearly as precise crew cut as the Brigadier himself.

“SSgt. Christopher Macias is a Dedicated Crew Chief for the F-16 to the 54th Fighter Group.” Brig. Gen. Leonard tells us. “He knows more about the jet than any of us.”

SSgt. Christopher Macias (left) is a dedicated F-16 crew chief in the 54th Fighter Group. He leads the team of technicians that maintain the combat aircraft here.

An enlisted man in the U.S. Air Force, SSgt. Macias is as razor-cut squared away as the Brigadier General and the other pilots we’ve met. Macias manages one of the maintenance crews who keep these well-used F-16’s flying. And while some of the aircraft appear weathered and flown hard, they are also spotlessly clean and in a high state of readiness. Huge glossy black rolling tool cases are kept shiny in the aircraft shelters on spotless floors. Tools inside are meticulously arranged. It’s clear the men like Macias who keep these aircraft flying have a deep affection and dedication to their jobs, exactly like the pilots.

I am the last reporter to board the media bus headed back to the unit office building. Our Air Force media liaison is trying to usher me back on so we can get to the briefing room and the air conditioning. Most of us have sweated through our clothing, but this is too good not to take in for just a few more seconds. More jets taxi from the end of the runway threshold. The tightly scheduled dance of deadly aerial combat training doesn’t wait for reporters. But I want to feel the concrete vibrate with the sound of operational jet noise, and feel what it’s like to walk in footsteps of one of the only real-world Jedi warriors for a just few more seconds.

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