Gunfighters demonstrate air dominance at Checkered Flag 21-1

  • Published
  • By U.S. Air Force Maj. Mark Calendine
  • 366th Fighter Wing

Off the shores of Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, the radios are crackling with the sound of the 389th Fighter Squadron “Thunderbolts” from Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, flying in Checkered Flag 21-1, the Defense Department’s largest air-to-air exercise. 

With more than 15 squadrons, 80 aircraft, and more than 1,000 joint and total force personnel participating during the two-week exercise, the T-Bolts are bringing F-15E Strike Eagle air power to the fourth and fifth-generation integration exercise.
Checkered Flag provides a unique opportunity for multiple units to train together and enhance their interoperability and readiness against high threat, near-peer adversaries in realistic scenarios. In each fight more than 50 aircraft are working together as a unified and cohesive team while conducting offensive or defensive counter air missions. 

Normally, during home station flying, units like the 389th FS conduct training against their own aircraft which then acts as the adversary or “red air.” By going on the road to Checkered Flag, the T-Bolts have been able to fight with and against Air Force F-22 Raptors, F-35A Lightning IIs, F-15C Eagles, F-16 Fighting Falcons, T-38C Talons, and Navy FA-18E Super Hornets in air combat, reaffirming and strengthening the Air Force’s air dominance and superiority.
Additionally, the T-Bolts have been able to use this opportunity to complete valuable upgrade training. In these upgrade rides, pilots and weapon systems officers (WSOs) trying to become mission qualified are able to demonstrate their ability to employ air-to-air tactics. At this same time, flight lead upgradees are also working to become certified to lead their wingmen into combat. These certifications are critical in maintaining readiness and ensuring our aircrew continue to provide combat airpower across the globe.
In addition, force exercises like Checkered Flag provide the opportunity to earn one of the highest aircrew qualifications – Mission Commander.
In the Mission Commander upgrade, a pilot or WSO is charged with leading more than 30 fighters and command and control aircraft in achieving the mission objective of the friendly or “blue force” team. In an air dominance exercise, this often means defending an asset or geographic area against waves of adversary “red air” for a predetermined time period. With more than 25 fighters simulating “red air” and regenerating over the course of a fight, this could mean planning and leading a tactical scenario against more than 100 “bandits” during the fight.
Mission commanders are then tested on their ability to coordinate air refueling, manage missile load outs, and direct the overall tactical game plan to succeed – all while flying and executing in their own jet.
This upgrade can only be accomplished during large exercises and it provides a critical capability to the joint fight. In working to provide this upgrade, the Air Force looks to train like it fights with realistic and dynamic scenarios testing its ability to respond rapidly to a variety of situations as a total force team.

“Checkered Flag gives us the chance to do high-end training and mission commander rides that we only otherwise could accomplish at Gunfighter Flag or Red Flag,” said Major Tony “Mafia” O’Shea, 389th Fighter Squadron Director of Operations.
“By mission planning and flying together here at Tyndall, we are able to better learn each other’s capabilities and be prepared to fight as one team if called upon.”