'Thunder' rolls at Fort Irwin

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Mikaley Towle
  • 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
They stand in the sweltering summer sun on a lake bed as dry as chapped lips in wintertime. Silence stretches throughout the empty valley and the occasional breeze offers little relief from the unforgiving sun's rays. Beads of sweat trickle down their foreheads as they communicate by radio with the inbound pilots.

As combat controllers, part of their job is to operate in remote and sometimes hostile areas helping the Air Force accomplish its mission by directing air traffic and alerting pilots and command of the location of hostile forces on the ground.

On July 16, a flight of two A-10 Thunderbolt IIs appeared like dots on the horizon of the National Training Center range at Fort Irwin, California, continuously approaching the dirt flightline on which they'd land. They circled the strip like sharks before finally landing and sending up huge clouds of dirt.

After exiting their aircraft and performing post-flight inspections, the two pilots met with the combat controllers who called them in. Shortly after meeting, they got into separate Humvees and left the site to meet with an Army brigade commander and his staff in another location on the range.

This event marked the first time A-10 pilots in a Green Flag-West training exercise landed at the NTC and met face-to-face with an Army ground commander.

"This was the first A-10 landing at Bike Lake as well as meeting with the brigade commander," said Maj. Jason Feuring, 549th Combat Training Squadron director of operations. "This meeting established rapport with the brigade and reassured them that the Air Force will be there for them when they call. By meeting with the commander and his staff and seeing the battlefield from the ground, the pilots gained an appreciation for what our ground forces go through during a Green Flag rotation."

Meeting face-to-face gave both parties a mutual understanding of what each brings to the fight, what capabilities each needs to be successful, and how to determine the best way to integrate with each other during the exercise.

"We're here to support these guys and that's why we deployed the entire squadron to Nellis Air Force Base," said Capt. Erik Gonsalves, 75th Fighter Squadron, Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, A-10 Thunderbolt II instructor pilot. "This helps show our dedication to them and making this exercise the best it can be for both parties involved."

This austere field landing helped display the capabilities and integration the Air Force and Army can offer.

"We have the ability to fight overhead, land, to refuel, and take off again to continue the fight," said Gonsalves. "This is a unique capability that we can provide, which goes along with close air support, combat search and rescue, and forward air control. It helps put a different spin on the A-10."

For this exercise, an airborne tanker was used, but having landing capability allows the A-10 to land at Bike Lake and refuel on the ground if necessary.

"This would give the pilots additional time in the area of operations in order to support the ground forces," said Feuring. "The landings we did last week proved that we could land, get gas, and launch to fight some more."

In a heavily-contested environment, the threat could potentially be too high to have an airborne tanker.

"An austere field landing allows for us to push in and provide close air support in a heavily-contested environment and allows for us to stay over head for longer periods of time," said Gonsalves. "By doing so, it allows us to help those on the ground out. It also eliminates the need to have an airborne tanker or have it close to an area with threats."

The A-10 was built to land on a field, which won't negatively affect the engine or tires, added Gonsalves.

Meeting face-to-face also allows for a more personal communication element to be added to the exercise, rather than communicating via email, phone calls, or video teleconference.

"I don't think there is a better medium of communication than meeting face-to-face and seeing the actual battlespace and area that they're operating in," said Gonsalves. "It gives us a chance to visualize what their conditions are like, see what they're dealing with, and understand their limiting factors. This helps strengthen the relationship. When you're fighting a fight, relationships are what it's all about."