Sunday, September 5, 2010

Gap's Bollen Range allows pilots to hone combat skills

Master Sgt. Will Ketner, left, and Tech. Sgt. Edward King, watch as an A-10C Thunderbolt II from the 104th Fighter Squadron, 175th Wing, Maryland Air National Guard, practices at Fort Indiantown Gap's Bollen Range on Wednesday. (Photo by Brad Rhen, Lebanon Daily News)

By Brad Rhen, Staff Writer
Lebanon Daily News
Posted: 09/04/2010 08:00:00 PM EDT

INDIANTOWN GAP - Two A10 Thunderbolt attack planes circle overhead, then swoop in.

The first drops a bomb on a train carrying supplies. The second strafes a line of armored personnel carriers with its 30-millimeter machine gun.

The two planes circle around and come back and do it again, this time taking out an air-traffic control tower and a plane sitting outside a hangar.

While the targets are simulated and the weapons used to destroy them are mostly inert, the training pilots receive at Fort Indiantown Gap's Bollen Range allows them to hone their combat skills before going to a war zone.

"It's to get the warfighters ready to go to war," said Lt. Col. Blake Uhl of Campbelltown, commander of the 193rd Special Operations Wing's Detachment 1, which runs Bollen Range.

"We try to make it as realistic as we can," Uhl added. "This is literally the last stop before they go to war. They're coming in here, doing their last few missions and dropping practice bombs; then two weeks later they're getting shot at and shooting back at the enemy. We're that last piece of the training puzzle."

Located in the Gap's training corridor between Blue and Second mountains and straddling the Lebanon-Dauphin county line, Bollen Range's primary impact zone covers about 2,000 acres. There are more than 150 targets, including a runway, hangars, bridges, tunnels, vehicles and an urban village. Some of the targets are built using old shipping containers and wood.

Uhl said workers at the range can build whatever targets pilots want to see.
"If they send us a photo and say this is where we're going in six months or in a year, we'll try to replicate that as much as we can so when they get to theater they can be prepared to see it again," he said.

"The guys have gotten really creative at building things that look very realistic out of junk," Uhl added. "There's a control tower that, at a glance you'd swear is an operational control tower from somewhere like Chicago O'Hare, and it's made out of an old shipping container with other stuff on top of it and painted to look like a real control tower."

The targets, some of which have more holes than Swiss cheese, are continually updated and replaced.

There is also a circular bomb target 46 meters in diameter with an armored personnel carrier in the middle as the bull's-eye.

"It's just a very basic target," Uhl said. "It's easy to find, but it's to practice your parameters, the basic skills before you get into the more tactical targets."

Aircraft training at the range use inert ordnance - it is the same size and weight but does not have explosives. Some of the ordnance includes BDU33s, a 25-pound bomb that emits a puff of white smoke when it hits the target, and a BDU50, a 500-pound inert bomb.

"They take the same casing that you would use for a live bomb, but instead of filling it full of high explosives, it's filled with concrete," Uhl said. "It flies the same, it falls the same, it weighs the same, it feels the same on the jet."

The range also has "threat simulators" to help simulate the threat of enemy fire from the ground. Among them are lasers and "Smokey Sams," a 2-foot-long Styrofoam projectile that leaves a smoke trail when fired to simulate a surface-to-air missile, or SAM.

The range is used often by A10 Thunderbolts, but can also be used by a variety of fixed and rotary wing aircraft. It also has drop zones that can be used for airdrops of personnel and supplies.

Users come from up and down the East Coast, including New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland and Delaware. There were about 2,800 sorties last year and about 3,000 in 2008, Uhl said.

The training runs are observed from a tower on the south face of Blue Mountain.

Nine full-time personnel work at the range, two officers and seven enlisted personnel. A basic mission requires four people, while more complex missions can require up to 11 people.

The range is in operation Tuesdays through Fridays, with Mondays set aside for maintenance, as well as select weekends. Aircraft usually only fly between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m.

"We could go later if we need to, but we like to be shut down so we're not making too much noise for our neighbors," Uhl said. "It can tend to get very noisy."

The range, one of 14 Air National Guard ranges in the country, is named after retired Lt. Col. Grant Bollen. A former A7 attack plane pilot, Bollen is credited with coming up with the idea for the range in 1976.

"He picked the site, and they started bringing airplanes in here in August of '79, so it took quite a while to get everything squared away," Uhl said. "The initial crew was a couple of old Jeeps and a some hand-held radios, and they had nothing except a valley with an impact area in it, and they brought jets out to drop bombs to train."

The range's primary mission is to support National Guard units, Uhl said, but it doesn't stop there.

"We'll do anything that supports the aviators throughout the Northeast or the Atlantic region or, for that matter, anybody who's willing to fly here," Uhl said. "Anything that we can do to help the warfighter we'll do."


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