Aside from being home to phenomenal salmon fishing, North America’s tallest mountain, and some of the biggest mosquitoes in existence (it’s the state bird, right?), Alaska boasts some of the finest military airspace on the planet. It’s no wonder the aircrews at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Eielson Air Force Base love being stationed there.
The 67,000 square miles of the USAF’s vast Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC) offers the ability for aircrews to employ their aircraft largely unhindered. By comparison, the Nellis Test and Training Range in south-central Nevada contains a meager 12,000 square miles of military Special Use airspace.
The JPARC airspace is a major asset and heavily utilized by all of the U.S. Department of Defense. It also provides our joint partners from NATO the opportunity to stretch their legs during major exercises like Red Flag-Alaska and Northern Edge.
This video shows some Red Flag action, not from the viewpoint of a pointy-nosed fast jet, but from the venerable Lockheed C-130 Hercules. Ride along with the 36th Airlift Squadron as they rage around the last frontier, weaving their way at low level through the beautiful yet inhospitable terrain.
The Eagle Airlifters are the only tactical airlift squadron within PACAF to be based outside the US, hailing from Yokota Air Base in Japan. While it might seem slow paced for some of you, the tactical airlift mission is intense, and a current Herc driver and former Eagle Airlifter has offered us some great insight into his world during these Red Flag-Alaska VULs.
The big take-away from a C-130 side, is that we continually practice these low levels because we have to be precise. Now that may not exactly come as a surprise as you could make the argument that every military aircraft has to utilize precision when conducting missions. However, as a large aircraft, flying in a contested environment, with no offensive capability, and a requirement to resupply the guys on the ground within a strict timeline (depending on the mission, we may have a window of less than a minute to conduct our drops and egress), the ability for us to get it right the first time is imperative.
“Follow the leader” is one of many ways we can accomplish our mission. This formation type allows us to provide mutual support to one another, as well as remain somewhat predictable for our support assets. When flying in mountainous terrain, such as Alaska, terrain awareness can be one our biggest challenges, especially in an unfamiliar environment. It usually takes hours of pre-mission briefings/planning to fly missions like this (not to mentinon the hours spent prepping for the missions by our Mission Planning Cell the day before). Even a mission as short as 20 minutes in a low level environment requires extensive preparation. The C-130 does not posses the performance to help you recover from a mistake, such as turning down the wrong valley. Therefore, it’s critical that we not only know what is around the mountain in front of us, but what’s around the next two turns after that, then knowing what our contingency options are if we detect enemy forces that we need to avoid, all the while, keeping an eye on our TOT…as the user is expecting us to show up on time no matter what. RF-A provides us with a way to validate our training, and when that training is validated, it is extremely rewarding.
In large force exercises such as RF-A, you really get a sense of what “controlled chaos” is. The mission is clearly defined and we have a set plan to execute it, but there is so much going on from so many different players, that it can be overwhelming to someone who has never participated in a LFE. Every aircraft has set objectives, and integrating them can be one of the biggest challenges. What is asked of certain aircraft may go against their primary objective, which may be necessary to reach the overarching goal. Communications can be tricky in these exercises. Knowing what you need to say and when, as well as passively listening to things that may not apply to you are important as they give you a sense of what’s going on. One missed radio call could mean that you fly into a threat area without support. That’s one reason these LFEs exist…to understand how you fit into the machine, and how to make sense of the “controlled chaos.” You don’t want the first time you experience it to be in a real world scenario.
There isn’t much to dislike about flying in Alaska. As a Herc driver, I am most comfortable as low as possible. Back in Japan, due to airspace and noise considerations, we don’t get to fly nearly as low as often as we would like to. In Alaska, there isn’t much out there to get in our way. We love flying up there as it provides us with some of the best training opportunities around. Not very often will you find the opportunity to integrate with different aircraft, sometimes from different countries. The lessons learned that we bring back from these types of exercises is invaluable, especially for our younger pilots. It’s quite rewarding to see them go from completely over their head the first day, to completely comfortable the last day. They are able to take the lessons they learn and apply them to their future missions, which makes the training well worth it.”