Pilots assigned to the 492nd Fighter Squadron and maintainers assigned to the 48th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, England, operate as the core function of strike, or air-to-ground targeting, for the duration of Red Flag 19-3.
This exercise provides air forces with some of the most realistic combat training available.
This opportunity to train at full capacity is not readily available to many participants at their home base.
“We’re limited a lot at home station by airspace and assets available to us, so this is essentially the best training range in the world,” said Maj. Arlen Walker, 492nd FS weapons shop flight commander. “You have lots of surface-to-air threats. You have an entire aggressor squadron and then the air space that allows you to fully utilize the aircraft’s capabilities. Essentially, none of that is available to us in England.”
Working in an exercise of this magnitude brings many challenges, including how to join forces on such a large scale.
“Everybody kind of stays in their own comfort bubble, and you have to force people to integrate,” said Walker.
Participants must overcome cultural differences between allies and learn how to work with coalition partners to prepare for real-world scenarios, said Senior Airman Daniel Smalls, 48th AMXS F-15E tactical aircraft maintainer.
Red Flag also gives the pilots and maintainers a better understanding of why they are a vital part of the mission.
“What we do is really important,” said Smalls. “You don’t realize it when you’re working every day, but when you’re in an exercise like this, and you’re actually preparing for real world threats, you get a better understanding of what it is that you’re actually doing. You have the pilots’ lives in your hands and whoever they’re supporting out there when they take off.”
As the exhausted maintainers give their final signals to launch the jets, the roaring sound of engines fills the air, and the pilots execute their mission in the U.S. Air Force’s largest air-to-air exercise.