by TSgt. Dan Heaton
127th Wing Public Affairs
5/2/2012 - GRAYLING AIR GUNNERY RANGE, Mich. -- To the casual visitor, perhaps, the aerial gunnery range near Grayling, Mich., is primarily focused on helping military fighter pilots with their target practice.
Senior Master Sgt. Alan VanPate sees it a little differently.
"When the 107th Fighter Squadron went over to Afghanistan, all of their pilots came home safe. Even more importantly, they did not have a single instance of their ordnance coming too close to our guys on the ground," said VanPate, the senior enlisted Airman at the range. "Instead, they engaged with the enemy and helped Soldiers and Marines on the ground to come home safe. That's what we train for in Grayling."
Operated by the Michigan Air National Guard, the Grayling Aerial Gunnery Range provides realistic and relevant training opportunities for a variety of U.S. military aircraft, as well as Joint Terminal Attack Controllers and related ground personnel. In a typical year, the range will be the site of some 1,700 or so air missions and will be used as a training location by 300 or more ground personnel.
"The focus is on providing training as close as we can get it to what our personnel are going to experience when they deploy," said Lt. Col. Timothy Brock, a Michigan Air National Guard pilot who serves as the range operations officer. "One of the reasons we have expanded the training opportunities here for JTACs and other ground personnel is because working with those ground-based controller is what our pilots do in places like Afghanistan."
In a valley along the edge of the massive Camp Grayling military reservation, the Grayling range features a small village setting; a variety of different types of vehicles made from sheet metal and plywood; a variety of bunkers, and other shelters and, in the middle of it all, a couple of large white buildings with red crosses painted on the top - you're not supposed to hit those.
Aircraft carrying practice bombs, rockets and guns can come at the targets from just about any direction and any angle. They are in constant contact with range controllers in one of two nearby towers and very possibly with any JTAC personnel - Air Force enlisted members who embed with infantry and related ground units to help coordinate air power support who may be training in the area. Depending on the type of aircraft and the training needs of the various participants, the aircraft will make several "attacks" on various designated targets. The ordnance carried by the aircraft are all "practice" versions of the real thing - the ballistics of the ordnance is the same but instead of a full load of explosives, they are equipped with roughly the equivalent of a shotgun shell's worth of explosives in a smaller, lighter bomb, just enough to make some smoke on impact to help all involved better track exactly where the munitions hit.
Many of the aircraft that visit the range are more or less "local" to the Midwest, such as A-10 Thunderbolt II's from the 107th Fighter Squadron at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Mich., and Toledo-based F-16 Fighting Falcons from the Ohio Air National Guard's 180th Fighter Squadron. The range also provides training to active duty Air Force B-52 Stratofortresses, Navy and Marine Corps F-18 Super Hornets, various Army attack helicopters and other aircraft.
Brock said the range began seeking out JTAC and other ground troops to train at the base several years ago, because of the 200 aircraft or more per month that visit the range in the summer.
"Now, we've begun to see situations where we have JTAC units that send their people here for training and then the aircraft come here, because they want to work with the ground forces," he said. "It is a training multiplier."
In situations like that, the visiting aircraft may utilize the air field at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center as a staging site for several days. The Alpena CRTC is about 50 miles from the air gunnery range and is the higher headquarters for the range.
VanPate and another Airmen assigned to the range are both JTAC instructor qualified and the facility also includes a virtual training center useful for more junior JTAC personnel.
In addition to U.S. personnel, the Grayling range is also utilized as a training site for several allied nations for their JTAC-equivalent personnel. In addition to JTACs and related personnel, Air Force civil engineer units are typically utilized to build many of the target structures on the base, saving money in construction costs and providing training to those units at the same time. All together, about 300 JTACs and more than 1,300 other ground personnel train at the range in a typical year.
"This is really a value-added proposition for Michigan, for the Guard and for the local communities," Brock said. "We are bringing in a variety of units here, enhancing the training environment for our Michigan Guardsmen and being a contributing part of the local economy."