Friday, August 27, 2010

Pacific Thunder 2010

by Master Sgt. Greg Steele
917th Wing Public Affairs

8/25/2010 - Barksdale AFB, LA. -- Concealed in brush on a barren mountainside, an airman hears the distinctive whine of two General Electric turbofan engines; the Hog is close. Over his radio he hears, "Up and in", the words letting him know the attack is imminent. An A-10 Thunderbolt II pops over a hill, climbs, banks hard left and then rolls almost inverted, the pilot finding his target. The airman responds, "Swine two -two, cleared hot." The jet rolls back over, levels out, and he watches the bomb leave the aircraft, falling with unbelievable precision, impacting directly on a tank. "Shack!" he responds, letting the pilot know it was a kill.

This is business as usual for a Joint Terminal Attack Controller, but instead of the harsh and deadly country side of Afghanistan, this scenario took place on the Yakima Training Center, an Army maneuver training area located in central Washington, northeast of the town of Yakima. The A-10, affectionately known as the "Warthog", was supplied by the 917th Wing, Barksdale Air Force Base, La.

In July 2010, approximately one-hundred 917th Wing Airmen and six 47th Fighter Squadron A-10s, deployed to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., for two-weeks of close-air-support training with the 5th Air Support Operations Squadron. The 5th ASOS is a combat support unit assigned to the 1st Air Support Operations Group, Fort Lewis, Wash. "Our training simulated wartime conditions with wartime airspace management issues," said Lieutenant Colonel Robin Sandifer, 47th FS director of operations. "We were able to put together all of the components of the integrated air-to-ground war with the guys on the ground who control the air."

The "guys on the ground" were the JTACs, a group of specialized Airmen who work side-by-side with the Army to make sure the right bomb lands on the right target. During the two-weeks of training, A-10 pilots brought a wide variety of munitions to the field, ranging from laser-guided bombs to 30mm bullets. The first week of training consisted of sorties flying inert (non-explosive) munitions that are the same size and weight as their "live" counterparts. In all, 48 inert 500 pound BDU-50 low drag bombs and 35 inert 500 pound laser-guided bombs were dropped on the Yakima range, with weapon releases being directed by the JTACs on the ground. When using these types of "low drag" munitions, their releases are from higher altitudes and the LGBs require the use of a laser for target designation.

"The SOFLAM is what we use for target acquisition," said Airman Michael Pincheira, 5th ASOS radio operator maintenance and driver. "Once we acquire the target and the bomb is released, the seeker head on the weapon follows the laser to the intended target." The Special Operations Forces Laser Acquisition and Marker (SOFLAM) is not only used for laser target acquisition, but also for range finding, which can be very important when you're dropping "live" munitions and want to stay well out of the fragmentation area.

Airman Pincheira, a new ROMAD fresh out of a five-month technical school, is a JTACs apprentice and responsible for setting up equipment such as the SOFLAM and radios the JTACs will use to communicate with the pilots to bring them on target. "This is great training for the younger guys," said Staff Sergeant Jarrid Cavanaugh, 5th ASOS Battalion JTAC. "It gives us a chance to bring them up to speed on any new equipment and gives them some much needed range time. For many of these guys it's their first time on the range, so it gives them a better understanding of what it is we actually do and what hopefully they'll be doing in a couple of years once they are certified JTACs."

Week two consisted of a volley of "live" weapon deliveries to the range in the form of 500 pound class MK-82 low drag and high drag bombs. High drag weapons allow the pilots to release them at a much lower altitude because their slower rate-of-fall gives the jets time to exit the fragmentation area prior to the bomb's impact and detonation.

The arrival of "live" weapons on the range also brings a volley of range restrictions which can be the cause of great frustration for both the JTACs and pilots. "This is an Army maneuver training range and even though the ground is littered with hard targets, the Air Force can only drop bombs on a select few," said Captain Kenneth Francis, 5th ASOS air liaison officer. "The JTAC is responsible for ensuring the pilot knows what targets to hit and keeps him aware of any changes in range restrictions, which could include anything from how low the pilot can fly the aircraft, to the direction needed to start the attack." Regardless of the restriction, communication between the JTAC and pilot was vital since the A-10s had a limited amount of range time for releasing their weapons.

The range terrain also brought its own difficulties. A JTAC relies on roads, structures, or natural landmarks to "talk" the pilot onto a target, but the moonscape appearance of Yakima range gave the JTACs little help when trying to describe to an A-10 pilot where his AF target is among the dozens of Army targets sitting out in the open. "It's a tough range to talk-on," said Cavanaugh. "Even JTACs that have years of experience say it's one of the hardest ranges to describe. The lack of detail and visible landmarks really makes it hard."

Live fire exercises were also being performed by the Army which included helicopters firing Hellfire missiles and artillery training. "It's great that we can do our Air Force training, but it's a bonus for us to be able to put titanium over army cranium," said Colonel James Macaulay, 917th Operations Group vice commander. "We want the army to get that warm fuzzy when they hear the whine of hogs overhead knowing that we're here for them. It's done huge things for us in the A-10 community and one of the reasons we're still around."

All totaled, by the end of the week of "live" drops, 24 500 pound MK-82 low drag bombs and 168 500 pound MK-82 high drag bombs had been released without incident, along with 6,900 rounds of 30mm target-practice rounds fired from the A-10's GAU-8/A Gatling guns. "This was my first time to see the A-10s in action and have been told what it sounds like when they fire the gun. It's definitely something you need to hear for yourself," said Airman Pincheira. "The training was great and I even got in some radio time with the pilots." The 47th FS flew a total of fifty-eight close-air-support missions during the two-week deployment.

CAS training in July on Yakima range is hot, dusty, and your only opportunity for shade might be underneath the backend of a Humvee, but you won't hear any complaining, because these JTACs and ROMADs know it will pay off when they're "downrange" on a mountainside somewhere in Afghanistan, calling in airstrikes to support their army buddies on the ground.

"This really gives our guys the opportunity to hone their CAS skills and expose them to what they'll see and experience once they're deployed," said Capt. Francis.

For the A-10 pilots of the 47th FS, who might someday find themselves flying over hostile Afghanistan airspace, they'll be waiting on the call from the JTACs of the 5th ASOS, who they consider to be one of the best combat CAS teams in the world.

In front of a picturesque setting, an A-10 Thunderbolt II comes in for a landing after completing a close-air-support mission on the Yakima bombing range. The 47th Fighter Squadron deployed six A-10s and flew 64 CAS sorties in support of Pacific Thunder, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, July 29, 2010. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Greg Steele) Hi-res

Note: The aircraft is A-10C 79-0150.


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