Thursday, October 23, 2008

Let the games begin

By Tim Unruh
Salina Journal

Minutes after four A-10 "Warthog" jet planes landed and taxied to a stop Wednesday at Salina Municipal Airport, an old black limousine motored up.

Out popped the driver, nicknamed "Zero," carrying cold cans of Bud Light for the pilots from the Michigan National Guard 110th Fighter Wing, Battle Creek.

Zero got to work unloading luggage and golf clubs from travel pods on the aircraft and crammed them into the 1988 limo, owned by the 303rd Fighter Squadron, Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri.

The greeting was part of the pomp Wednesday as 30 of the fighters from Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units across the United States arrived for Hawg-smoke 2008, a bombing and strafing competition at the airport and the Smoky Hill Weapons Range west of Salina.

The 442nd Fighter Wing at Whiteman, which includes the 303rd, is hosting about 100 pilots and 400 support crew members.

"One day we were sitting around and decided we needed a limo as a mascot. We all pitched in and bought it on eBay," said Zero. His real name is Capt. Chad Carlton of the 303rd.

Besides the friendly battle for bragging rights -- the winner puts on the next Hawgsmoke in two years -- there is the always-serious side of perfecting the squadrons' role in fighting wars and protecting the peace.

"Everything we do here is to build on what we need to do in the field," said Maj. Preston McConnell of the 303rd. He's been an A-10 pilot since 1998, having flown missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"On any given day, anyone in this field can go out and win it. The key to any one of these competitions is to not make a mistake," McConnell said.

But this gathering is more than networking and honing expertise. It's a convention-like atmosphere through Saturday at the airport, the Kansas Regional Training Institute, and a golf course that wasn't named.

On Wednesday, the Salina Airport Authority's new hangar was like a reunion hall, but roughly the size of a football stadium. In fact, some airmen were tossing the pigskin.

For Hawgsmoke, the 442nd has outfitted the hangar with a gift shop. Snacks and meals are available, along with meeting rooms, a lounge with a television, a medical clinic and areas for the news media.

Only a small part of what goes on today through Saturday at the airport is open to the public -- only at certain times and in only in one, designated area. None of today's competition at the weapons range is open.

"Whenever you have low-flying aircraft firing live ordnance, that's an obvious hazard," said Maj. David Kurle, chief of public affairs with the 442nd Wing.

It serves the country

Hawgsmoke is another training mission where skills are honed for battle, McConnell said.

"Everyone loves what they do. It's something bigger than themselves. It serves the country," he said.

But there are elements built into Hawgsmoke for relaxation, networking and camaraderie among those with a common bond.

"Professionals have got to take breaks, too ... pass along information and get together with our friends," he said.

It's a balance of fun and games, and the serious military side.

"The skills we use here are the same ones we use every day," Kurle said.

The goal is to protect freedoms, he said, including those being expressed several hundred yards to the north, where the Salina People for Peace were demonstrating. Their posters and actions caught the attention of military personnel Wednesday while they were escorting media on the tarmac.

"We like it when people use their First Amendment rights as long as nobody gets hurt," Kurle said. "That's all I care about."

Original caption: A 1988 limousine, a mascot of the 303rd Fighter Squadron, Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, is used to greet A10 pilots arriving Wednesday for Hawgsmoke, a bombing and strafing competition at Salina Municipal Airport and the Smoky Hill Weapons Range. The 442nd Fighter Wing, which includes the 303rd, is hosting the event that is staged every two years at a different site. (Photo by Tim Unruh / Salina Journal)


Note: Sorry that I overlooked this interesting news story in the last couple of days.

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