PRINCE SULTAN AIR BASE, KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA --
A convoy of Afghan Humvees makes its way down narrow roads in urban Afghanistan while escorting an Afghan Army Corps commander in the summer of 2016. From the rear, a Tactical Air Control Party officer witnesses a rocket-propelled grenade rip through the lead Humvee, as a gunner with a heavy machine gun steps in front of the second, unloading the entire ammunition belt into the windshield. With the commander located in the fourth vehicle, time was limited to react.
Capt. Brandon Schoenfeldt, then a TACP officer, was on the ground and went to work calling in and communicating with U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft. From their vantage point, the F-16 pilots recommended their response be a low aggressive flyby known as a ‘show of force’ given the proximity of friendly forces if they were to fire. The tactic worked and the enemy retreated. As the enemy gathered for a re-attack, ground forces, F-16s and Afghan Air Force helicopters followed to neutralize the enemy threat. Due to the efforts of the TACP officer and the five aircraft, the commander survived and the mission was completed.
“It was this point that helped me realize how crucial it is for not only TACPs to understand the pilot perspective but how effective it can be when pilots understand the ground situation,” said Schoenfeldt. “Between us, we were able to quickly build a plan and increase all players’ situational awareness to ensure success on the battlefield.”
Few can say they have been on the ground and in the sky during an enemy ambush, however, Schoenfeldt has experienced both. He began his career as one of the first 100 officers to complete TACP technical training. He would quickly go on to complete his Joint Terminal Attack Controller certification, which qualified him to perform a wide range of tactical battlefield operations. Schoenfeldt would be no stranger to firsts as he then later became the first TACP officer to become a fighter pilot, now flying with the 77th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron on his first deployment as a pilot.
Schoenfeldt commissioned through the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2012, where he met wounded warriors at a symposium and spoke with them about the new TACP officer career field the Air Force was developing. Previously, Air Liaison Officers were pulled from other flying careers for temporary leadership assignments within the enlisted TACP force. Meeting these individuals set his course at the academy, inspiring him to pursue the opportunity to lead airmen into combat in a new career field.
“After a couple summer programs called Operations Air Force with an emphasis on introduction to the TACP officer career field and working with TACPs at Ft. Carson, I knew it was what I wanted to do as a young [lieutenant],” said Schoenfeldt.
Schoenfeldt deployed twice to Afghanistan, embedding with U.S. Army units, in 2013-2014 for Operation Enduring Freedom with the 3rd Brigade 10th Mountain Division and again in 2016 for Operation Resolute Support and Operation Freedom Sentinel with the 2-87 Catamounts Battalion 10th Mtn Division. As a TACP, he had the responsibility of planning and directing close air support, fire support and integrating air and land forces.
“TACPs role is special in that they are the sole liaison back to fast-moving fighter aircraft, bombers and rotary wing helicopters,” said Capt. Martin, 77th EFS pilot. “When troops on the ground are taking effective enemy fire, the TACP is the one that stands in that void and calls in the airstrikes needed for them to repel the enemy. The TACP is the one talking to the pilot on the radio, guiding his eyes and sensors through a potentially convoluted urban environment.”
It was during Schoenfeldt’s second deployment that he began to think about how he could strengthen the relationship and communication between TACPs and fighter pilots. With this plan in mind, he applied to cross train and in 2017 was selected to attend pilot training graduating, pilot training in 2018.
“Brandon always had an internal drive to learn more and educate those around him,” said Capt. James Kearney, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve Operations Officer. “It was towards the end of my time at the unit that we all knew his love of the TACP career field and its mission, but a desire to impact the mission from a different perspective. Before he even stepped foot into the unit, Brandon wanted to fly.”
Having gone from coordinating logistical effects on the ground to receiving them in the air, Schoenfeldt had a fuller understanding of the relationship of ground to air communication and its importance.
“I think the advantage this brings is my ability to connect the pilots with the TACPs,” said Schoenfeldt. “I have a better understanding of what is happening from the ground perspective and I think that helps my ability in the jet to be able to see and maybe understand things a little quicker.”
Schoenfeldt explained both professions need to be capable of working in a high-stress environment and be capable of multitasking. While being a TACP on the ground and a pilot overhead are challenging in different aspects, he felt they both require patience, dedication to the job and a support for each other. In the fighter squadron, he now provides his expertise to the pilots he flies with.
“Brandon has shared with us the ground troop perspective; specifically, what they’re seeing, how they see it, what it’s like to be down in the fight instead of 20,000 feet above,” said Martin. “He’s built our close air support knowledge base, taught joint fires observers in training, ran a real-world in-squadron CAS training exercise for one of our upgrading flight lead’s and has put a face to what life is like for the TACPs we work with every day.”
While his transition puts him in the position to connect the fighter pilot community, it also came with the personal rewards of supporting and being supported by the TACPs he worked closely with in the beginning of his career.
“During this deployment and even at home station, the most rewarding part has been having the connections with many of my friends on the ground as I am overhead performing training or operational missions,” said Schoenfeldt. “Being able to fly in support of some of my closest friends that I have deployed with and built a bond over some difficult times is something I can only hope to continue to do.”
Schoenfeldt also worked to build interpersonal relationships between pilots and TACPs to bring the rewarding experience to them as well.
“He’s encouraged the pilots on this deployment to call up the JTACs throughout the theater and just talk to them, get to know them,” said Kearney. ”He’s pushed the pilots and JTACs to build relationships even though they’re not even in the same country.”
Looking back on the convoy, Schoenfeldt now has the opportunity to be the entity that changes the momentum in stressful situations.
“It’s very rewarding to be on this side of the situation,” said Schoenfeldt. “Having understood what I did before as a TACP and now being able to provide much larger effects and an ability to help keep our people safe by just being overhead is very cool.”